simple yet articulated

For various reasons (touring Schindlers, interviews, general wondering...), I've been pondering the design of our house. Inside, the house is amazingly efficient. It's so easy to move through it. When we give a friend a tour, it's like "Whelp, there it is. That was fast, wasn't it?!?!!" On the other hand, the outside appears complex: There's a lot of articulation and volumes somewhat protruding from the house.

The other night, while thinking it over, it occurred to me why: The floor plan is organized about a perfect "L". Every room, space, or entry is accessed from this "L". The rooms that protrude from the "L" are the sizes needed to meet their purpose, with some (but really not a lot) of alignment and "squaring of space" to meet some aesthetic and construction purposes.

Pretty simple, right? This differs from what Schindler did in that he intersected volumes into each other. Here, the volumes protrude from "access corridors".


different housing:different power usage

Check out this graph. It shows BTUs per square-foot of conditioned space per month for our living situation over the past 10 years. Yep, that's right: I've been inputting our monthly energy bills into a spreadsheet since 2004 just for this moment. This plot encompasses three different living arrangements:

old haus: An old house built in 1886 and 1910 with no insulation in the walls and (mostly) single pane windows. Note that the biggest BTU spikes are for the winter when we use a lot of gas to keep the house warm.

apartment: A green built apartment in a high-rise; BTUs are artificially low because of cooling provided via a service that didn't allow us to include the energy costs.

new haus: The place we are in now!

Not surprisingly our new place is much more energy efficient, and perhaps maybe on par with the apartment? It will be interesting to see how this summer and winter go now that we have the HVAC working better...


we're gonna get decked....

Our landscaping grand plan includes a stage in the back yard:

"Stage?" you ask. Why yes: A stage! All of life is one, you know.

We built a stage at our previous house, which was great fun for poetry readings, speeches, and musical performances. We were even married on that stage. Given the enjoyment we had with that stage, we're determined to have one at this house as well.

For this stage, we plan all those functions and more! Here's the grand plan:
  • We want the stage to be minimal (surprise, surprise...) and to evoke the house. We plan to do that evoking in several ways: 
    • keeping it a simple geometric shape (that is, a rectangle [approaching a square]);
    • building it in such a way that the stage "floats" above the ground (that is, the edges cantilever out a distance, maybe a foot or so; we plan to run LEDs under there to hi-light the flatness at night);
    • choosing decking materials that matches the house somehow, either grey composite to match the gray on the house or sealed cedar that approximates the cypress in the ceiling and eaves [leaning this way...]; and 
    • facing the sides of the stage with 12-inch Hardie plank to match the facing on the eaves of the house. Although the eaves are painted gray, I'm thinking that we'd paint them white. We shall see...
  • On either side of the stage toward its front, we plan to install posts that are the same girth and finish of the Judd picnic table. This evokes the picnic table and the eaves (ties things together...) and allows the stage to serve several purposes:
    • hold lights pointed toward the stage (we already have electric run out to the stage area to powers light and amps),
    • hold a screen between the two posts so if we ever buy a projector we can show movies in the back yard,
    • hold a clothesline, and
    • hold a hammock [not all at the same time....].

I'm not exactly sure where to place the "picnic" posts. Flush with the posts? Slightly behind? Slightly ahead?

The architects were out a few days ago for a magazine interview (stay tuned...) so I was able to get their quick feedback on the stage situation. It's doubly helpful that one's a musician (and one at least looks like a poet...).

So here's where I'm at with the design:

The dark green area at the bottom is the existing lawn of Aggie Zoysia (14 feet wide) and the brownish square (10 feet wide, 9 feet deep) is the proposed stage, which is shown to hang over the lawn by 6 inches (maybe it needs to be more?). The darker brown behind and to the right of the stage is the existing mulch area with the four planned Texas Mountain Laurels. The light brown background is the existing pea gravel. The two small squares are the proposed placements of the 6-inch square cedar posts, the inside corner offset from the lawn and the stage by 2 feet. The medium-sized square in the upper right is a step up to the stage, 3 feet by 3 feet with six inches under the stage (needs to be 1 foot?).

I think this just might work...

Based on their work and reviews on Angie's list, we're looking at Austin Deck Company as the potential contractor.

We want the deck to "float". For example:

via here.

Some info on floating decks:

Floating decks.

Floating a step.

Island deck.

The Depot on decks.

As well as this hilarious piece written by a code-bot on how to build a floating deck.

Stay tuned...


haiku for the book "Schindler and the Small House" by the Boston Architectural research Center (and interview with Bill Boehm!)

out in the dark woods
a cabin made of hewn logs
this ain't Abe's cabin...

I have a deep fascination with R.M. Schindler's log cabin. After trying to con(vince) Steve Wallet into generating a three-dimensional model of the cabin (he only does realized projects...), he turned me on to this little publication where the authors, Bill Boehm, Daniel Johnson, and Julia Nudent, built a half scale model of the structure.  Bill Boehm, who is now the lead at Boehm Architecture, was kind enough to hook me up with a copy.

As the title suggests, this 56-page book is focused on Schindler's small houses, dividing his homes into different typologies:

 - compact (essentially a square)
 - rectangle (wide)
 - cranked (non-orthogonal angles)
 - rectangle (narrow)
 - stepped
 - winged

Boehm notes that about one-third of the 180 single-family and duplexes Schindler designed were less than 1,400 square feet. He also summarizes Schindler's space architecture as integration with the landscape, interlocking spaces, light and lightness, and a limited palette of natural materials.

Boehm notes that Schindler's career was focused on houses. Schindler sadly missed out on larger commissions, but that miss allowed him to focus almost exclusively on houses his entire career. In addition to era photos and floor plans of various houses, the book includes photos of scale models made at the research Center. However, the real treat in the book is Schindler's cabin.

Schindler designed the cabin in 1916 and then finished up the drawings at Taliesen the following year. As the Boehm notes, the log cabin predates his later focus on small affordable houses. The 14-foot by 36-foot cabin has two rooms and used simple materials. According to Boehm, Schindler addressed affordability, construction technology, Modernist formal principles, and vernacular influences with the cabin.

The book also includes David Gedhard's observations about the cabin:
  • the cabin is work that places Schindler in the Prairie School
  • “Wrightian in flavor”
  • “much more sculptural than most of Wright’s designs of the Prairie years”
  • “Schindler makes the building float” something that is non-Wrightian
  • Schindler used a two-foot module, both horizontally and vertically, in the design of the cabin. These dimensions are clearly expressed in the design with numbering and lettering. [Gebhard wrote "four-foot module", but the plans are clearly marked in two-foot increments]
  • “Also non-Wrightian in its intensity is the self-concious declaration of the log structure. Schindler not only thrusts the end of the logs far out beyond the corners, he makes the floor and ceiling rafters plainly visible.”
Boehm and company built Schindler's cabin at half scale using styrofoam for masonry, Sonopost protective packaging supports for timber, and honey-combed craft board for the roof and floor. The cabin was shown in Boston, Massachusetts; Northfield, Vermont; and Buffalo, New York. There are many photos of the construction and display of the cabin (in addition to the full plans for the cabin as well). 

(photo from the book of the half-scale model of Schindler's log cabin)

Bill Boehm was also kind enough to agree to an interview from yours truly.
Whatever happened to the model of the log cabin?
It was re-assembled once at Norwich University in Vermont, and then recycled.
There doesn't seem to be much backstory on the log cabin except dates for when Schindler designed it and drew up the plans. I've read that it was a purely speculative, theoretical design. However, his site plan seems to suggest an actual site ("old fence", "old hedge"). Do you think the cabin was designed for a real space?
It's a good question, and a good mystery, which an ambitious scholar could dig into in the Schindler archives at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The site plan is a bit odd for a rustic retreat - it is  very controlled - with prim shrubbery and paths (as well as the 'old fence' and 'old hedge') all following his 2'x2' grid.
There are photos of (balsawood?) models of various houses presented in the book. Are these models y'all put together? 
Yes. We built four models for the exhibition. Two of them still exist in my office.
How has Schindler influenced your work?
I am a believer of modestly scaled homes and "right-sized" spaces. BecauseI work in the Boston area, which is already built up, most of my work is either renovations of older homes or new affordable housing. In both cases, space is at a premium. Schindler made small houses that work brilliantly, and are sculptural at the same time.
What's your favorite Schindler project?
I love his own home, AKA the Schindler-Chase home. It is minimal and sculptural. It integrates the landscape with the interior beautifully for an urban home without a lot of land. It is also idealistic, an experiment in cooperative living (that ultimately didn't work out); a demonstration of how architecture can be in service of a social concept.
Why is "research" not capitalized for the name of the Boston Architectural research Center? 
Because I was inserting research in to the Boston Architectural Center!

And there you have it. I hope to post more soon about the cabin.


it was a dark and stormy night...

Scary storm blew through a week ago Thursday night, knocking out power at our house for a couple hours (the bride: "We need an emergency generator."). We were fortunate: Some folks lost power for several days.

As the storm blew in, it was flashing more than a dirty old man at the playground, so I pulled out the camera to try and capture a lightening shot. After 50 some photos, I got one!

Interesting how the mix of white lightening and warmish household lights changed the color response of the camera. Shocking!


the best houses of all time in L.A.

and coming in at No. 1......

The Schindler-Chase House!!!

Thanks to PrairieMod for the tip on the article.


marcel breuer's wassily chair

I'm always amazed by how well Modernist furniture designed in the 1920s fits in with our house. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. After all, this furniture was specifically designed for Modern structures at a time when there was no furniture to fit the architecture. Nevertheless, here I stand (and sit?), amazed.

Marcel Breuer in his chair circa 1927. 
"This metal furniture is to be nothing more than a necessary device for modern-day living."

A recent acquisition we made was Marcel Breuer's Model B3 Chair, known popularly these days as the Wassily Chair. Designed in 1925 and 1926 while Breuer was the head of the cabinet-making workshop at the Bauhaus (and only 23 years old!), Breuer was inspired by the chrome handlebars of his newly acquired Adler bicycle. His design also echoes neoplasticism, namely Gerrit Rietveld's early de Stijl furniture. It was also the first use of steel tubing in furniture.

1925 Adler (via here). Nice handlebars!

The original chair used black or white canvas for the material and came in a folding and non-folding version. It wasn't until after World War II that the manufacturer introduced leather in addition to canvas. Knoll currently owns the trademark and design, although the patent design is expired and thus available to other manufacturers. The Knoll version retails for (gulp) $2,354 (our unofficial [and more than adequate] version cost substantially less). The name "Wassily" came years later when the chair was re-released and the manufacturer heard a story of how the painter Wassily Kandinsky, at the Bauhaus at the time Breuer designed the chair, liked the chair so much that Breuer had an extra copy of the prototype made for him.

Pleasantly creepy photo by Erich Consemüller of a woman in the B3 club chair wearing a mask by Oskar Schlemmer and a dress in fabric designed by Lis Beyer, 1926.

Original manufactured chair, 1926-1927 at the Vitra Design Museum

Marcel Breuer (1902 to 1981) was a Hungarian architect and early student and instructor at the Bauhaus. He teamed with Walter Gropius at a number of institutions and for a number of projects, complimenting Gropius' lack of drawing skills. Like many of the Bauhausers, Breuer left Nazi Germany in the 1930s. His path took him and Gropius at first to England where they worked for Isokon. While in England, Breuer collaborated with the architect F.R.S. Yorke on Modern houses. When Gropius left England for the United States in 1937 to run the Harvard School of Design, Breuer went with him. Breuer and Gropius went their separate ways in 1941.

Photo of the vintage chair with white canvas from Knoll.

We put the chair in the office, which has a viewscape from the entry and living room along the bookcase. The antique black phone in the rear is from East Germany.


good to get a trim!

Finally hired a tree trimmer to come and (ahem) trim the trees, and we're quite happy (and amazed!) at the results. We had several goals to achieve: (1) clear the canopy above one of the sycamores out front, (2) trim a branch hanging ominously over the neighbor's driveway, (3) thin out the herd of branches on the trees out front, especially the low riders (and the large dangling dead branch from a recent storm), (4) trim the trees back from the house and garage (some were rubbing during breezy days), (5) take out the small pecan growing into the canopy of the neighbor's beautifully massive pecan (and clear the way for building a stage), and (6) trim the branches that were blocking sun to the wicking gardens.

The most dramatic result was up front. After trimming, the house just pops off the lot! It made me realize that if you're going to put your house on the market, you should seriously consider a tree trim beforehand. On the negative side, there's not as much shade as there was, but there's a lot more growing room (and sun) for the other landscaping plants.

By my eyes, tree trimming is an art. Which branch to take off to make the tree "balance" and look good? These guys did a great job.

Where the stage shall be going...

Cut back from the house.

More sun to the garden!


How Low Can You Go? Spousal Experiments in Water Conservation

[Here's an article I wrote for a Texas water conservation publication that just got published last week.]

Due to an accidentally awesome real estate investment in our first house, a small inheritance from grandpa, being DINKs (double income, no kids), and a willingness to absorb massive amounts of debt (it’s the American way…), my wife and I were fortunate enough to help design, build, and move into a house last summer in north-central Austin. As you might have guessed, being a serious water geek (What? You didn’t know?!?!), I spent quite a bit of time researching, choosing, and installing fixtures and appliances to increase the efficiency of water use in our home. On the behavioral side, I’ve also experimented with water conservation on my spouse. Water savings have been substantial, but spousal behavioral results have been mixed…

The average Texan uses 95 gallons of water per day at their home.  We are currently using 33 gallons of water per person per day. We got there by choosing WaterSense fixtures for the inside and not using city water outside. Getting there has been relatively easy, but there have been some challenges along the way.

Based on work by the Texas Water Development Board, an average Texan uses about 59 69 percent of their residential water inside. That equates to 66 gallons per person per day. Although a lot of people focus on reducing residential water use outdoors (and there’s nothing wrong with that…), the primary use of water for an average Texan is indoors. That 33 gallons per person per day that my wife and I achieved is half that of the average Texan, a water savings that’s greater than what an average Texan uses outdoors over the course of a year. And it was easy as peach pie to get there. All we did was choose WaterSense-rated fixtures and appliances, items that use at least 20 percent less water than today’s federal fixture standards. The only indoor behavioral change required was choosing which button to press when flushing a toilet, although I would like us to be more efficient in the shower.

Speaking about showers, I think a lot about our shower head. It amply showers us with two gallons per minute. Our previous shower head at our apartment used 1.5 gallons per minute through one emitter (it spat at us like a hot sauce sipping monkey). Our current shower head has a Wall Street worthy field of 66 emitters. You read that right: 66!!! Compared to our previous monkey-spitting shower head, our current one is Niagara Falls. It’s hard to believe it only uses two gallons per minute. One morning this spring, on the way to a water meeting, I was thinking about our shower head again. At the meeting, I wound up sitting next to the engineer who designed our shower head (the world is truly a beautiful place!). He told me it took about two years to design our shower head and assured me that, indeed, it only uses two gallons per minute. I didn’t quite believe him. But when I did a bucket test, there it was: two gallons after one minute, a miracle of motivated water conservation engineering.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, an average American uses 17 percent of total indoor water use for showering, just behind toilets (27 percent) and clothes washers (22 percent). With toilets and clothes washing taken care of with efficient fixture choices, I’ve tried to increase shower efficiency by encouraging the bride to take shorter showers. To help things along, I picked up one of those TCEQ shower timers as an educational tool with the incentive to “beat the heck out of TCEQ!” For some reason, that shower timer goes unused or “disappears”. And my shower-based lectures on water conservation seem to have worn thin. If she’s particularly agitated she’ll say “You know how long my showers are when you are not here? Thirty minutes. Did you hear that? T H I R T Y   M I N U T E S!!!! S O M E T I M E S   L O N G E R!!!” Ultimately, I’ve had to choose between (1) shorter spousal showers or (2) cancelled conjugal visits with loud threats of bitterly expensive divorce proceedings. As in many decisions, I made an economic one.

What we did outside required more dramatic behavioral changes. We thoroughly xeriscaped our yard with natives and drought tolerant plants and used lots of mulch and gravel. What little turf we have (9 percent of our yard, about 750 square-feet) is drought tolerant (a billowing Aggie Zoysia in one place; a scrawny buffalo grass mixture in another). We grow vegetables in a series of wicking gardens, an efficient way to water-from-the-bottom to minimize evaporative losses. We also have a massive, for an urbanite, rainwater collection tank: 5,000 glorious gallons of cloud juice storage dedicated to outdoor use. The plants love rainwater compared to city water, and the time we save by not mowing grass or watering the garden leaves more time for arguing about showering. Win-win!

My wife and I truly love to collect rainwater. We placed our tank where we can see it from our living room (it’s gorgeous…), so whenever it rains, we watch the float on that tank like hawks. However, sometimes it’s painful to use the liquid gold we collect.

Me: “Honey! Why are you using city water to wash the picnic table?!?!”

Honey: “I don’t want to waste the rainwater!!!”

As a friend pointed out, she may be taking a wider more strategic position on water resources given how low the Highland Lakes are right now. When designing the plumbing for the house, I asked for a central shut-off valve to keep the outdoor fixtures from freezing during harsh winters. That valve is also proving useful in discouraging the wife from using city water outdoors (at least until she figures out where that valve is [or finds the number for her divorce attorney…]).

So there you have it: We decreased indoor usage by half and total usage of city water by two thirds by using WaterSense fixtures and no city water outside. While decreasing our outdoor use required a great deal of effort , cost, and behavioral modification, indoor savings were easy to obtain with little behavioral changes (once I gave up on changing significant-other showering habits). And most importantly, despite all the spousal experimentation, we’re still married! However, writing this article makes me think we can go lower. Anyone up for 25 gallons per capita per day?

walking in L.A.!

only a nobody walks in L.A.!  (reference, in case you are not a child of the eighties...)

(unless you're out to photograph a simply stunning graffiti scene...)