Thursday, October 7, 2010

Building Green

In the late 18th- and early 19th-centuries, green building was taken for granted... only back then, it was just called "building."  Conservation of resources, use of indigenous building materials, and siting a building for prevailing winds and passive solar gain were considered not only good sense, but vital to the structural integrity of the building and the survival of its inhabitants.

The"dog trot" house, a dwelling type commonly built in the southeast before air conditioning became ubiquitous, is a good example.  The classic dog trot was raised off of the ground to allow air to circulate under the house.  It typically was comprised of two rooms-- a cooking/eating area at one end, and a sleeping area at the other-- separated by an open breezeway.  The breezeway offered a cooler, covered area for sitting, and acted as a "central air conditioner" when windows were opened in the two adjacent rooms.  The photo at left is of a modern interpretation by architect Stephen Atkinson (photo by Timothy Hurley).

Today most people aren't willing to forgo air conditioning, but it still makes good sense to site a house for prevailing breezes and optimal daylighting.  In Texas, north-facing windows are desirable because they allow for a diffused natural light without heat gain, since the sun is always to the south at our geographic latitude.  Roof overhangs on the south facade of a building will help to block heat gain during the summer, when the sun is higher overhead, but will still allow some heat gain in the winter, when the sun is lower in the sky.  The Caswell Residence, at right, has a roof that vaults to the north and large, north-facing windows to provide the upstairs study with diffuse daylight.

Green design's emphasis on sustainability encourages the careful selection of building materials as well.  My friends Jill and Kenan, owners of the Yaspar Residence, asked that we design their addition with the tenets of bioregionalism in mind. Consequently we tried to use as many locally harvested and sourced materials as possible, including long-leaf pine flooring reclaimed from old barns in the area.  We also used hardiplank siding, which is composed of a cellulose fiber and cement mixture.  While not a locally harvested material, it's considered "green" in the sense that it requires very little maintenance and has a long lifespan relative to many other building materials.

Metal roofing is considered a green alternative to composite shingles, due to its lifespan and the fact that it keeps a building cooler.  It can be made even greener by installing it on 3/4" furring strips and combining a ridge vent with a perforated roof drip edge-- this allows air to move in between the metal and the wood roof decking, which helps to cool the roof without introducing any outside air into the building itself.  Foam insulation is another product that works toward greater energy efficiency.  While polyurethane foam is a great acoustic and thermal insulator, there is a soy-based version that reduces the percentage of petroleum in the composition of the foam.

Green design should always fit the building to the site, which means retaining as many of the desired trees and as much native vegetation as possible.  Dead trees can be harvested and locally milled for incorporation into the design, such as the walnut bar counter and trim at the Yaspar Residence (above), and the pecan bar counter and trim at the Courtyard Residence (at left).

There are a number of programs at the national and local level that encourage green building and provide more information on sustainable design.  The City of Austin's Green Building Program was one of the first programs in the country to encourage green building.  The U.S. Green Building Council's LEED program (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) accredits professionals in sustainable design and provides a rating system for green building design and construction.  For more information on green building materials, products and techniques, check out websites like Jetson Green or Green Building Advisor.  Or just give us a call!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Making Mid-Century Modern

Recent trends have embraced Mid-Century Modern design for its simplicity, its attention to detail, and its openness.  Owners of Eichler homes in California, or houses designed by such architects as Fehr + Granger in Austin in the 1950s, extol the virtues of open-plan living.  The open plan is no longer unique of course, but good mid-century homes still exude an appealing optimism.  Such houses typically have a front facade that is somewhat private, with larger expanses of glass opening to yard and landscape at the back of the house.  These houses lend themselves well to modernization, because they still feel modern.

We recently completed Phase 2 of a remodel/addition to a 1950s house in West Lake Hills, outside of Austin.  Though the structure of the house paid homage to California early modern architecture, interior walls blocked views of the Wild Basin Nature Preserve to the north.  The kitchen was small, dark and cramped, and had no connection to the living space. 

Phase I of the Wild Basin Residence focused on increasing the transparency of the interior spaces, while retaining some structure to create layered views. Stainless steel countertops, maple cabinets and glass mosaic tile brighten the kitchen, which can finally look out the glazed living room wall to the nature preserve beyond.

A new smooth-troweled cement plaster fireplace surround updates the living room, while creating a textural contrast to the rough-laid limestone wall.

Phase 2 of the Wild Basin Residence comprises a new garage, patios, office, family room, and master suite. Design work focused on creating a connection between the addition and the site, and included a swimming pool.  The T-shape of the house creates a sheltered courtyard at the front of the house, while helping to reclaim the landscape in the back yard.  The old porch roof was removed, and a new "butterfly" roof added, bringing in more northern light and views.  The flagstones were replaced with a concrete porch, which presents less of a tripping hazard.  The wood tongue-and-groove decking reads as a continuation of the interior ceiling finish.

The builder, Brady Behrens of CasaBella Homes, had some good ideas (such as using thicker Hardi trim boards as siding to approximate the original redwood siding) and did a great job with the construction.

The addition exhibits the same post-and-beam mid-century vernacular as the existing house, with plentiful glazing to admit light and views. Painted hardi siding, galvalume roofing, low-E windows and cork flooring all contribute to the sustainable design. 

Another recent project transformed a non-descript 1950s ranch house into something more suitable for the young family who purchased the property.

The Ridgeview Residence comprises a "gut remodel" and addition to a house in the Zilker neighborhood. The remodel opened the kitchen to views of the back yard, improved circulation through the living spaces, and replaced outdated cabinets and interior finishes.

Skylights were added to bring more light into the interior of the house, and the wall between the kitchen and the living/dining area was removed.  A large kitchen island anchors the space and provides informal seating.  The single door and small windows that looked out onto the 1/2-acre back yard were replaced with sliding patio doors, which open onto the new patio and screened dining porch.

The existing garage was converted to a new family room, with a carport added to
the west.  The back of the garage was opened up with sliding doors to access the patio and pool beyond.  The garage remodel also accommodates a laundry room with access to the patio and an outdoor shower.

The garage door was replaced with a bay window, which looks out onto the landscaped front yard.  The end result of the project is a "modern ranch" that takes full advantage of its site.

While both the Wild Basin Residence and the Ridgeview Residence were fairly substantial remodels/additions, you can make your own "Mid-century" modern by following a few simple guidelines:

1) Create a connection with the site.  This could be as simple as changing out a solid door for one with glass, to allow views into the backyard or to the front porch.  Decks are also a great way to make the transition from inside to outside, and can be built relatively inexpensively.  If you need to build more than a couple of steps from the deck down to grade, make them wide steps that can also be used as seats.

2) Open up interior spaces.  Open walls with cased openings, or remove walls where possible to allow for layered views through the house.  This makes a house feel larger and less formal.  You can also replace solid interior doors with glazed doors, where privacy is not an issue.

3) Consider built-ins.  While it's true that you can't take them with you if you move, built-ins are a great way to give your house some character and maximize functionality.  They work especially well in a small house.

Thanks for visiting, please feel free to post questions or comments!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Architecture and Memory

I lived in Tokyo, Japan from the age of eleven until I graduated from high school.  It was a pretty significant portion of my "formative years," so in some ways I consider Tokyo my hometown.  I recently spent a month in Osaka (see for more on that), followed up by four days in Tokyo.  I stayed at a ryokan (Japanese inn) in Shibuya, the Tokyo district where we lived, and was able to spend some time walking through the neighborhoods of my youth.  It got me thinking about how architecture is mapped in our memories, and the extent to which the map accords with reality.

The idea of architecture being inextricably bound with memory has been studied and discussed at great length, of course.  Buildings were once (and still are, to some extent) considered the physical manifestation of cultural memory, a means of passing down cultural and societal values.  On a personal level, some of our first memories have to do with buildings, or with the spaces that we experienced in our childhood.  In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard describes a phenomenological response to architecture-- it's not an analytical observation, but rather the "lived experience," where architecture is defined by the imagination.

A few years ago I designed a house for some friends here in Austin.  The upstairs is loosely based on my memories of a house in Stockholm that I lived in when I was young.  My brother and I each had our own bedroom upstairs, with a large (at least in my memory) play area between them.  Looking at photos of that house now, I realize that the the upstairs couldn't have been that big-- it was essentially an attic with some dormer windows.  But the fact that it was our space, both individually and collectively, has made it seem bigger in memory.  My hope in designing the upstairs for my friends' house is for their two young sons to feel the same way...

To get back to Tokyo though: what I had most looked forward to was the opportunity to wander the old neighborhood and walk the routes I used to take, from train station to home, from home to the park, etc.  I was amazed that although Tokyo has changed significantly since I moved away, I was able to still locate a few remembered landmarks and find myself where I wanted to be.  The bronze statue of Hachiko (the loyal dog) is still in front of Shibuya Station, like an old friend.  109 and Tokyu department stores are still there as well, marking my turning points.  Beyond that, there aren't really any more landmarks-- just a couple of long stretches on a fairly quiet neighborhood street until I reached my house. Some of the houses on the street were different of course, but it was the same street that I remember riding down on my skateboard, "street luge" style.

When I reached the entrance to the little street where our house was, I wasn't sure what to expect.  The street is really a private drive, with two houses on one side and three on the other.  Ours was at the very end of the drive, on the right side.  The drive terminates at a tall wall, on the other side of which is the New Zealand Embassy.  As I walked up the drive, I noticed some conspicuously un-residential activity going on... it appeared that the entire compound had been turned into a television/movie production set.  The shed was gone from my old back yard, as was the wall that separated the yard from the drive.  The house looked different, especially with the production crew in the process of filming in the back yard.

The nameplate on the front of the house said "Natural."  Vines nearly obscured the facade, as if the house had been reclaimed by some mythical forest.  The interior of the house had been completely transformed-- the living room looked like someone's idea of a beach cottage, with wide-plank wood flooring and a few pieces of strategically placed furniture.  My parents' old room and the tv room upstairs were decorated in a similar fashion.  My brother's old bedroom door was locked from the exterior with a padlock.  And my old bedroom was now an office, crammed with a desk, chairs, bookshelves and binders.  Funny how what's in a room can change the experience so radically-- it had once seemed like such a cozy space, and hadn't ever felt cramped even with a desk, bed, dresser and weight bench in it.  The reality of my old house is now a "collective memory," someone else's idea of what a "natural" house is supposed to look like.  The physical house and its spaces are completely dissociated from my experience of the building as home, but it still exists mapped in my memory as it did over twenty years ago.

My friend Mark Schatz, an artist in Houston, recently completed a piece based on a childhood memory of a road trip (you can see the piece at Mark's website:  He literally mapped his memory of the drive, combining it with GoogleEarth to create what might be called a piece of autobiographical fiction.  Our memories of architecture are usually based in physical reality, but are defined by our personal experience of those buildings or spaces.  As time passes and context changes, our remembered experience of a space becomes more meaningful to us than its physical reality.  Ultimately I think that's an argument for creating architecture that allows for an active imagining, rather than passive observation.  In practice, for me, that may mean the look or feel of a particular detail, the way sunlight slants through a window at a certain time of day, or a view that the observer feels has been captured especially for her.  Architecture experienced, without thinking.