a home for us, our cat, and 4,753 maggots

Off and on I've alluded to our "worms”, a more socially acceptable term for our colony of Black Soldier Fly maggots (thank you, Devon). Yes, you read that right: Maggots. Big juicy Cheeto-sized ones, AKA “my babies”. I don’t know how many we have (a [potentially] hyperbole-infused guestimate is in the title) but there’s a large writhing pile of ’em in our composter. And boy do they eat. A lot.

Truth be told, I’m quite fond of them. So much so, we moved them from the old house to the lot. The movers, at first intrigued by the novelty of maggot moving, were not impressed (4,753 maggots and their accouterments are heavy and [ahem] a little messy; don’t be surprised if you see a special fee if you want your maggots moved in the future).

I didn’t start out loving maggots. My initial goal was to (organically) kill them all after finding them squatting in our composter for a second time (see ancient post from MySpace [remember the promiscuous days of MySpace?] below). But due to the miracle of Google (I’m convinced Google will become the center of a future religion), I immediately saw their value and now cherish them (no hyperbole there: I was really worried about them during the move).

Black Soldier Fly maggots, hipster vegans that they are, love coffee grounds and watermelon (you have never seen a happier pile of maggots until you’ve seen ours doing the “Folgers Boogie”). Among certain circles, I’m even known as the “Maggot Whisperer”, having saved other colonies from impending destruction by revolted (but uneducated) composters. And I even got my first request for a maggot transplant: Moving some of my babies to a new home!

We haven’t talked to the architects about the maggots (yet). We don’t want to press our luck. We’re already fortunate they haven’t hiked because of our special requests for the kittycat (thank Gawd for a down real estate market!).

I wonder if the vet chips worms?

"mmmmm: Watermelon!!!"

I love my maggots

Late one night, I collected the clippings and whatnot from the to-be-composted bowl and carried them deep into the backyard to the compost pile. After I dumped them onto the pile, I could hear the pile come alive with writhing and rustling. "Bwahhh!" I hooted as I jumped back. I nudged the composter frame and heard the writhing and rustling again, but it was too dark to see what was there. After returning from the house with a flashlight, I nudged the composter frame again and was horrified to see a contorting mass of maggots. "BWAHHH!!!!" I hoot-yelled this time. As I ran back to the house BWAHHing the whole way, my father-in-law (father-in-common-law at the time) was greatly amused.

"Maggots?" he asked, "All that hooting and hollering for a few maggots?" He didn't say the words, but I could read them in his eyes: "Girly. Man."

"These maggots aren't normal maggots," I replied, "Go see them yourself."

Out into the backyard he marched with the flashlight. I watched him go behind the garage to where the compost pile was. "BWAHHH!!!!!" he hoot-hollered while running quickly back to the house "Those are the biggest and creepiest maggots I have ever seen!"

This all happened 10 or 12 years ago. After the maggots appeared, I lost my appetite for maintaining a compost pile. A couple years ago I got the urge to compost again, this time mostly for leaves. As I fed the composter, I watched for the maggots. Fortunately, they didn't come. We then began feeding kitchen scraps into the maw of the composter being careful to not put meat into it, convinced rotting meat had attracted the maggots all those years ago. Last month, when I opened the lid to the composter, the maggots were back. A big, juicy, boiling mass of worms, these maggots were each an inch long and as thick as a Cheeto. Interestingly, they loved coffee grounds, squeezing out from the goo below in the hundreds to have a writhing caffeine-fueled orgy.

A couple days ago, after witnessing another frenetic maggot dance upon a week's worth of ground coffee beans, I shook my fist at the sky and yelped "BWAHH!!!! I WILL GOOGLE A SOLUTION TO MY MAGGOT PROBLEM!!!"

After googling "maggots" and "compost," I learned that these large, pasty-skinned wigglers are the larvae of black soldier flies. It turns out these maggots are not uncommon, love food scraps, and are a welcome addition to a compost pile. They are also high in protein. Freakily, when the maggots pupate, the resulting fly doesn't have a mouth. The only purpose of the fly is to mate, something it needs to do quickly as it only lives for a couple days. The black soldier maggots are very active, process a lot of organic matter quickly and are even used industrially to break down tons of manure at hog and cattle farms. One entomologist noted that they love coffee grounds (those're my boys!). One posting string started off with "How do I get rid of these maggots?" and ended with someone else asking "Can someone please send me some maggots?" after an entomologist explained the innocuousness and helpfulness of black soldier fly larvae.

I'm fortunate, I now understand, that I've got a few hundred maggots I can call my own...

Maggots on the move.


floorplan evolving...

Last Friday Architect 2d sent us more detailed floor plans from our Option B choice from a week or so ago, and it's real neat to see how he fleshed out the simplified floor plan and addressed our comments.

There really isn't much for us to say: There's a lot to like here. The bump outs for the bookshelves in the living room and the sink in the half bath are clever (and the book bump will add interest to that part of the house, methinks). The bride is happy to have a peninsula in the kitchen (she shall be cocooned; the peninsula will keep dinner partiers [or partiers in general] to the stools rather than in the middle of everything). A cute little pantry makes an appearance (yay! we have a place to put our wine!). The stairs to the second floor curl around a "bonus" open square area that's prolly open to the second floor (library? sculpture display? mini-disco floor?). The laundry room is roomy. And the second floor looks grand (with the mechanical closet appropriately centrally located in the house: excellent). We can see initial thoughts on window locations and size (lots of cornerish windows!) and can also begin to see roof drainage direction with the location of parapets.

Minorish quibbles: We miss the wall in front of the house (you can see it here; this might actually be a largish quibble). We're hoping to have the oven and microwave in a wall (not sure that will work without losing the pantry or a sizable part of the pantry). A bigger window in the sink area? We are also avid grillers, so we're looking for how outdoor cooking fits in with this lay-out (not sure at this point...). I'm guessing the square footage has increased a wee bit (the floor plan looks/seems bigger).

All in all a great leap forward. We're hoping to navigate through our wacky schedules to meet with the architect this week.

explosions in the night

Had this excitement last night!


Modern Home Tour Houston on March 3rd

We won't be able to attend (boo! hoo!), but if you can make it, make it! Features a 1960 Usonianish house designed by a Wright disciple, urban meccas, and oh my gosh look at those gorgeously intersecting cubes (and that [plywood?] floor)!!! Mo info here.


green dilemma of the day: tree or solar?

We are, I admit, vaguely desperate for solar. We hope (we hope! we hope!) we are getting passive solar designed into the house, but we would love to have a place for active solar (and the $0.12 electric bill the Green House people had for October-November is doing nothing to dissuade us…). However, active solar may be a challenge on our lot.

The property to our south has some gorgeous pecans that provide some passive solar shading to the southern part of our property during the summer months. Because of those trees, any hope of placing solar panels would have to be on the northern side of the property, so the top of the garage would be a perfect place. However, there’s an unfortunately placed juvenile pecan just to the rear of where the garage might go. This tree will shade the garage in the morning hours and, over time, shade more and more of the panels. Not good. Furthermore, because of the neighbor’s trees, that corner is the best corner for a garden, but not after that juvenile grows into an adult.

So….. Which is greener? (1) Cutting down the tree, replacing it elsewhere on the lot, generating electricity, and eating homegrown vegetables? or (2) Leaving the tree, steaming about the Green House people’s less-than-a-quarter a month electric bill, eating Twinkies, and dying 15.3 years earlier because we lived anger-(and cream-)filled lives?

Insert advice below (or the tree gets it!).


don't it make my brown wood blue?

When looking closely at Plan B, we peeking-Tommed into the front door and saw that the architects had clad the interior “privacy wall’ with naturally finished wood. Yes, we know: It’s premature to be picking out materials just yet, but it’s hard not to dream, no? And clearly the architects are thinking a wee bit ahead here, yes? And wood with some tonal variation seems like a good choice here. But what kind of wood?

We like stuff to be consistent, so we reckon that whatever wood we use on the second story floors (and probably the steps) will be used on the privacy wall. Material continuity, you understand. But what kind of wood?

As far as the standard stuff goes, there’s bamboo (Consumer Reports ranks engineered woven bamboo by EcoTimber as tops for being resistant to wear, scratches, stains, and dents [and that’s tops as in topping everything, included hardwoods]). If we go with actual (more standard) wood, we really (really) like the (oddly cubist) look of hickory. But our dream wood is Rocky Mountain pine murdered at the claws of millions of mountain pine beetles and fungi.



the blasted bark beetle:

A large number of trees have been killed by bark beetles in Colorado. We were at a family function a couple years ago (spreading the ashes of an uncle…) and got to see the damage. It’s shocking. Whole mountainsides and forests are dead from the beetle infestation. In fact, so many trees have died, the forest service is making plans for how to deal with 1,000,000 trees falling over A DAY once the trees rot and start falling! The beetles have always been there, but because of warming temperatures, they aren’t getting froze out like they used to. So they’re having thanksgiving dinner on a pine table every day.

Riding along with the beetles is bluestain fungi. Once the beetle bores into the bark to do its thing, the fungi also attacks the tree, staining the wood (you guessed it!) blue. This is all a tragedy, of course, but there’s one positive: The blue stained wood is beautiful.

Because so many trees have died, Colorado is trying to put the dead wood to use. And we would like to use it! This is all probably a pipe dream (the wood doesn’t appear to be “mass produced” at this point; therefore, it’s prolly really really expensive), but we can dream, can’t we? Not to mention that the green message in this blue wood is mixed: green because we’d be using dead wood; not green because it’s not local; and ironic because global warming (probably) caused the death of the trees in the first place.

As Crystal Gayle would sing if she worked at Home Depot: Don’t it make my brown wood blue?

Precedents Day

We’ve yapped about precedents in various blog posts, so it seems appropriate to present our precedents on Presidents’ Day. A precedent is “an act or instance that may be used as an example in dealing with subsequent similar instances.” So in architecture, a precedent is a building, a finish, or a solution that came before that can be used to guide a solution in the here and now or in the future. In our case, we used precedents to define our stylistic preferences. It’s unclear to me whether or not architects like to see client-provided precedents or not. Michael Malone, in “The Architect’s Guide to Residential Design”, suggests the answer is “No”:

“During your initial interviews [potential clients] will usually tell you up front what they are looking for; some may even have books or magazines with specific houses or, even worse, various elements of houses they fully expect to see incorporated into their new home.”

I’m fixated a wee bit on that “even worse” bit, which suggests architects don’t want you lugging your books and magazines into their offices, thank you very much. Ultimately, I think every architect’s preference is to have a (book-less, magazine-less) client walk in their office, slap a pile of cash on their desk, and yelp, in a Zsa Zsa Gabor voice, “Design me a house!”

We assembled and distributed our list of precedents to potential architects for our project before we read Malone’s book. But truth be told, we still would have done it after reading Malone’s book. The Zsa Zsa Gabor approach would make me nervous unless I knew that I would love whatever the architect came up with. And even then, that’s a risk. What if Mr. Cubist Architect was having a mid-life crisis and decided all his projects would now be Beaux Arts, and you were the first “beneficiary” of this revelation? On the other hand, what if you were courting International Style architects with what you were expecting would be a gothic castle with a Minnie Mouse themed landscape design? It seems to me getting the broad style questions and expectations settled early, before contracts are signed, is important.

What Malone may be concerned about is the potential specificity of a client’s request. If you go into an architect’s office with a photo of a house and state “I want my house to look exactly like this house”, that’s a problem. That house may not fit your program, your site, your orientation, or your budget and may trample on the creativity of the architect you’re talking to as well as the architect who designed the house you like (not to mention the folks who built a house they thought was unique).

We provided a herd of precedents (14) with some carefully calibrated additions (one with a curve and one with a shed roof) to indicate what we were open to. We also included a few notes of what we liked and didn’t like about each house. If you do this, I strongly suggest you use “weasel words” (‘We “prefer” a side entry.’ versus: ‘We require a side entry.’) unless you truly have a deal-breaker in your design vision. Speaking of side entries, we have a preference for them (but didn’t demand one); however, note that our current design doesn’t have one. This was a case where the architects had the flexibility to present a non-side entrance solution as part of a broader plan, a plan we ultimately adopted.


do architects look like their architecture?

It occurred to me when I was writing about Usonian architecture the other day that the Usonian Expert working on our house kinda looks Usonian: Earthy tones, down to Earth, cotton shirts (natural materials), likes to be indoors AND outdoors, and an emphasis on the horizontal (I hear he gets at least eight hours of sleep a night with perhaps the occasional nap...). That begs the question: Just as some hypothesize that people tend to look like their pets, do architects tend to look like their architecture? hmmm.... Let’s have a look...

Frank Gehry:

Rudolph Schindler:

Richard Neutra:

Tandao Ando:

Adolf Loos:

Richard Meier:

Mies van der Rohe:

Michael Hsu:

Le Corbusier:

Frank Lloyd Wright (during his funeral procession):

I don't know what you think, but I think the answer is yes!


haiku for the book “In the Cause of Architecture” by Frank Lloyd Wright

a new way to build
of the hill not on the hill
Usonian dreams...

This book, a Christmas present from my bride, is a collection of essays Wright wrote for the Architectural Record under the title “In the Cause of Architecture” plus an essay, his last for the Record, titled “Organic Architecture Looks at Modern Architecture”. In addition, there are essays, written by former students, contemporaries, and historians, attempting to locate Wright's place in history 15 years after his death. Wright, of course, had no hesitation about his place: “It’s been 500 years since there was an Architect. After me, it will be 500 years before there is another.”

Most interesting (to me at least) are his first and last essays. The first, published in March 1908, describes his six “Propositions” (first sentences extruded below):

I. Simplicity and Repose are qualities that measure the true value of any work of art.

II. There should be as many kinds (styles) of houses as there are kinds (styles) of people and as many differentiations as there are different individuals.

III. A building should appear to grow easily from its site and be shaped to harmonize with its surroundings if Nature is manifest there, and if not try to make it as quiet, substantial and organic as She would have been were the opportunity Hers.

IV. Colors require the same conventionalizing process to make them fit to live with that natural forms do; so go to the woods and fields for color schemes.

V. Bring out the nature of the materials, let their nature intimately into your scheme.

VI. A house that has character stands a good chance of growing more valuable as it grows older while a house in the prevailing mode, whatever that prevailing mode may be, is soon out of fashion, stale and unprofitable.

Wright claims he first wrote these down in 1894, which strikes me as believable (and not revisionist) since his work from that point on appears to adhere to these propositions.

In support of simplicity, he notes that “An excessive love of detail has ruined more fine things from the standpoint of fine art or fine living than any one human shortcoming--it is hopelessly vulgar.” He goes on to note that contemporary “...interiors were always slaughtered with the butt and slash of the old plinth and corner block trim, of dubious origin and finally smothered with horrible millinery.” Finally, it appears Frank doesn't like your wedding and pet photos: “Pictures deface walls oftener than they decorate them.”

The timing of his diatribe against decoration in 1908, a central tenant of modernism, is interesting. Adolf Loos is credited with writing his essay, “Ornament and Crime”, in 1908. However, evidence shows that “Ornament and Crime” didn't actually appear until 1910, and it was a speech rather than an essay. In fact, his essay of the same title wasn’t published until much later, in 1927. It’s unclear to me how much architects of the world back then read journals from other countries, but I suspect they did. I’m sure there’s a dissertation somewhere about this and how Wright’s writings influenced what was happening in Europe.

Wright also discusses his belief in the 1908 essay that architecture needs to be organic and respectful of Nature. This carries from how a structure is placed on the landscape (“of the hill, not on the hill”), colors, and the use of materials (“Reveal the nature of the wood, plaster, brick or stone in your designs; they are all by nature friendly and beautiful.”).

Although Wright was sparse with complements of his colleagues and students who later entered the world on their own, he had kind words for Louis Sullivan, crediting him with emphasizing function over form and states that all he, Wright, did was take what Sullivan taught him and apply it to homes.

Later essays in the series are hard almost stream-of-conscience reads (like posts in this blog!). In one, he rails against former students and imitators, noting that “The sins of the Architect are permanent sins.” Others are detailed treatises on various aspects of architecture and materials.

His last essay, titled “Organic Architecture looks at Modern Architecture” and published in May 1952, focuses on Wright’s perception of Modern architecture. And it’s an entertaining read.

In short, Wright pretty much thinks Modern architecture is a turd in the architectural punch bowl. He notes that Modern architecture came out of Organic architecture but states that “...here came a kind of tapeworm into the entrails of Organic-architecture.”

Wright notes that Organic architecture came wholly out of the United States “...entirely free of European influences.” Wright describes the traits of Organic architecture as:
  - variety of roofs;
  - ornament non-existant unless integral;
  - open plans;
  - walls become screens, often glass screens;
  - gravity heating (his term for “radiant heating”);
  - slab on grade; and
  - startlingly clean, streamlined effects.
He notes that the Machine is dedicated to Organic architecture but that Modern architecture is dedicated to the Machine and that “Modern-architecture is Organic-architecture deprived of a soul.”

Wright lashes out at the heros of Modern architecture (the “white-paint-men”) without naming names, but the targets are obvious: “On came the nude box cut open or set up in the air without pants.” (Le Corbusier). “By maintaining a white sepulture for unthinking mass-life, individuality was soon leeched from the performance.” (Le Corbusier, Bauhausers). “’Less is more, unless less, already little, becomes less than nothing at all and ’much ado about nothing.’” (Mies van der Rohe).

Finally, as a parting blow, he equates the International Style with fascism and Organic architecture with democracy. A strong statement considering the date (1952) as well as inaccurate considering that the Nazis ran the Bauhaus out of Germany.