haiku for the book "The Perfect $100,000 House" by Karrie Jacobs

one hundred thousand...
is it even possible?
at this time and place?

I clicked this book up in a weak moment during my tequila-fueled frenzy to learn more about Rocio Romero and her LV house. The next morning, regret washed in: "I can't believe I bought a book simply because it mentions Rocio Romero..." But after Karrie Jacobs' The Perfect $100,000 House came and after I, yes, skipped to and read the Romero chapter, I started the book from the beginning and read it clean through. It is an absolute gem.

The book is like Jack Kerouac's On the Road fused with Dwell but without the drug use (and the underaged sex south of the Tropic of Cancer [although I suspect there was some rolling around in the hay {bale house}...]). Jacobs had just left her job as the founding editor of Dwell under something of a dark cloud and then, freed from any obligations and back into the freelance world, traveled 150,000 or so miles across the U.S. in search of a $100,000 house, the amount she could afford. Mind you, this is in the Early Aughts (circa 2003), so a hundred grand today ain't what it used to be (according to the feds, $100,000 then would be $130,000 today, still a modest amount for anew house). Nonetheless, the book's focus is really on accessing good design at an affordable cost.

What she discovered was that being affordable required cheap land (of course), conventional building techniques (although there are exceptions), sweat equity, modularity (although there are cost challenges), and an architect willing to assume little to no compensation for the task. As one of the Andersons of Anderson Anderson Architecture states: "The least expensive house is the most conventional one." The clean look of Modern costs money, making an inexpensive Modern house highly difficult.

I was pleased she made a stop in Marfa. She points out that Donald Judd, despite a fixation on cubism in his art and furniture, places curving roofs on his buildings. She then stops in Austin to visit with Chris Krager of KRDB and describes a house friends of ours built in South Austin: 1,400 square-feet for $125,000. KRDB's work is Schindleresque in that KRDB works with the standard materials of construction: wood and stucco (Krager is an admitted Schindler fan). R.M. Schindler worked with these materials so his clients, mostly folks of modest means, could benefit from inspiring spaces without breaking the bank.

Jacobs observes that early modernism was about function, whereas "...today's modernism is chiefly about style. It may be minimalist in design but it is maximalist in budget and attitude." Although Modernism from the get-go, except in a few cases, has almost always been for the wealthy.

Jacobs finds that production architecture, the KB Homes of the world, have achieved cost precision that most people appreciate, certainly people of modest means that can't find out halfway through their build that their dream home is going to cost 50 percent more than they thought. Unfortunately, the designs are atrocious (on many levels).

Bryan Bell, an architect/builder of houses for migrant farm workers, describes how "...a square house gives the most volume for your price. It minimizes the size of the foundation and the roof." The coolest part of this book was learning about various architects around the country doing inspiring work on accessible, affordable Modern, such as Sambo Mockbee of Rural Studio in Alabama (see photos below).

As far as Rocio Romero? Jacobs sees her architectural model, prototype then production with conventional construction, as the realistic path forward for as affordable as Modern can get. Jacob states that "[t]he LV Home is such a strong design that it's iconic..." and "...that the LV Home will be a classic design, something about which preservationists and cognoscenti will hold conferences fifty years hence..." Interestingly, Romero hits on all the key parts: conventional building techniques, simple footprint, modularity, and a way to minimize architectural fees.

This is not a book of images. In fact, there is not a single photograph among its nearly 300 pages. Each chapter begins with a line drawing of a home discussed in the ensuing pages. And it is a fantastic, easy-peasy read.

Kennedy House by Anderson Anderson Architecture (photo via Houzz)

A Rural Studio project in Alabama (photo)

Antioch Baptist Church by Rural Studio (photo)

Corrugated cardboard pod by Rural Studio (photo)

Glass Chapel by Rural Studio (photo)

Richard Neutra's log cabin (with a green roof!) built in the early 1950s (photo)


dancing with architecture: Long Beach (with a evening side of San Diego)

After gawking at R.M. Schindler's Lovell Beach House, we finally reached our destination in Long Beach, a street art festival that, it turned out, ended the day before (there went our plans to meet Fafi in person!). Nonetheless, a number of the street artists were out and about continuing to work on their pieces.

Once back in San Diego, we stopped at a mural park where the murals were so-so, although the Frida Kahlo was quite good. By the time we made it back to the hotel, the sky was on fire.


the blue cube is coming

Pecan Street is close to installing something they refer to as the Blue Cube on houses in their monitoring program. Blue Cube works in conjunction with a fancy meter register at the street to report water consumption on a gallon-by-gallon basis. In other words, each time you use a gallon, the meter reports it to the Cube with a timestamp. In this way, you (and Pecan Street [and perhaps the city]) can track the details of your water usage.

There's the cube!

The hope of the detail measuring of water usage at the street is that the overall signal can be decomposed into telltale component parts. For example, the flushing of a toiler has a tell-tale signal: a certain number of gallons over a certain amount of time. The same for a shower (although shower times can vary) and other water-consuming activities. The hope is to be able to see where water consumption is occurring and how changes in technology (adding dual-flush toilets) and policy (drought restrictions) impact water consumption.

We're signed up, so hopefully we'll get cubed! I'd like nothing better than being able to track water consumption on a gallon-by-gallon basis!


tracking power

The nudge for getting the wifi extenders up and running was to get a signal from the wifi network out to the garage such that we could hook the energy monitoring from the outbox to the interwebs. After a visit from one of Pecan Street's electricians (a nice dude that was in Crust as well as a number of other local bands I know about [as well as a friend of a friend]), we got the system all hooked up. Fortunately, the data systems Pecan Street uses stores its data, so although we were down for about six months, all the data was there for inspection. 

One cool thing about the system is the ability to see the contribution from our solar energy system (see graph at top where red is total energy consumption and green is energy generated from solar). You can pick out the annual cycle (summer energy use peaks), weekly cycles (we use more energy when we are home during the weekends), and daily cycles (more energy when we are home in the evenings). 

We can also see what our energy consumption and generation look like at various time scales as well as real-time (the bar on the right which shows, at that moment, more energy being generated than being used). 

The graph immediately above shows energy consumption from the dinner party we hosted Saturday night (to remember a friend who passed away 10 years ago) for about a dozen or so folks (lower temp setting on the thermostat, doors opening and closing [and sometimes not closing...], fridge opening and closing, lights galore, music). You can also tell when the party ended (about 1 AM). 

You can also see a pattern of higher energy consumption in the evening when we get home, and you can see how the bride lowers the thermostat right when we go to bed (she needs it COLD to sleep). The HVAC kicks on at a higher level for about an hour at to attain the target temperature, runs for an hour or so at a lower level, and then cycles on and off all night. The power consumption pattern of the HVAC has me wondering about the variable-cycle compressor we're supposed to have. This looks, by my eyes, like how a two-cycle compressor would work rather than a variable-cycle compressor. This has me wondering about the installation/programming of the thermostat...

Another neat thing hidden in the energy monitoring system is being able to track individual circuits to see how certain appliances are doing. It doesn't look like I posted about this earlier, but back in December the refrigerator went out for about two months (Whirlpool should be ashamed of itself, since it was selling defective merchandise in the hopes it would last through the one-year warranty). It was something of a slow death that took FOREVER to recover from with two sets of technicians employed before the problem was figured out. 

Here's the energy consumption history of the fridge:

You can see that something clearly started going wrong toward the end of November when the energy consumption doubled from about 70 watts to more than 150 watts. After the thing was fixed, it had a new baseline of about 80 to 85 watts. Pecan Street's electrician said this suggested that something was still wrong with the fridge (it's been noisier than it was before, that's for sure). You can also see that slowly, over time, it's consumption has increased to 100 watts, suggested it's on a slow road to death. Sigh... So much for having an energy-efficient (and quiet) fridge.

The novelty of this stuffs wears off fast. I hope at some point to investigate energy consumption about the house to try and optimize (and minimize) our consumption. This circuit-by-circuit stuff will be helpful in this effort. I also now know that when something electric is acting wonky to check out its energy consumption for clues on what might be happening. Pecan Street is using the data to monitor energy consumption and generation at a number of houses across town and the country. Once Tesla's batteries become available (the bride wants one bad...), I'm sure they'll be looking at those (and perhaps Pecan Street will have a deal on them for a study!). This also makes me want to get more solar cells. With the neighbor's tree down, we could get more solar and place it on the roof... 


decorating with books

"There is no better decoration for a room 
than a wall of book-filled shelves." 

Henry-Russel Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, The International Style 1932

With the bride and I having something of an affinity for books (we have about a 1,000 of them in the house), the program for our house required a place for books. As noted above by the original arbiters of the Modern aesthetic, Hitchcock and Johnson, books are an appropriate decoration for a Modern house. However, they were probably influenced by their own bookish ways (book people are always fond of displaying their books, whether for ease of access or ease of impressing guests). Books can be rather visually messy, the opposite of minimalism. Others suggest that, in affairs of the heart, a person that doesn't display evidence of bookishness is not worthy of (ahem) rigorous attempts at procreation.

I broadly place decorating with books into two camps: (1) using books simply as props to decorate with and (2) using books as books but displaying them in an aesthetically pleasing way (which, of course, depends on the personal views of who is gawking at them). I would argue that Modernism demands the latter of the two. Books used purely to decorate are anathema to Modernism, which demands the abscence of applied decoration.

Here's a fine example of using books as props (which perhaps get most directly [perhaps too directly...] at the rigorous procreation issue):

To avoid using books purely as decoration yet wanting to display them aesthetically, there are middling ways.

There's the color code approach:

I actually have most of my books at my office organized by color, which, for me, works surprisingly well (I'm more likely to remember the color of a book than the author and title...).

There's the back-side approach which introduces some uniformity of color:

I like the look of this, but this approach pretty much means you've (suspiciously...) given up on knowing what is where.

There's color uniformity (that is, only buy all white books):

forgot to source this one...

But this is also suspicious (unless you also have a blue room, green, room, red room...).

Another option is to encase each book in white (or some other colored paper) and then lightly scrawl on the spine in pencil what it is:

Nice look, but, wow, what a lot of work. I'd rather read a book.

For our house, we chose function with a wee bit of form. Our books are organized by broad topic (for example, architecture, cooking, texana, poetry, existentialism) and randomly placed as far as size and color are concerned (the architecture section is organized by architect). The one nod toward form is making sure all the books, regardless of width, are the same distance from the edge of the bookcase. To achieve this, we use the MAK Center guide to R.M. Schindler, which has the perfect width as well as a long spine for aligning a long string of books.

A good guide on Schindler as well as a good guide for lining up books.

By aligning the books at a constant distance from the front, a nice line forms, adding just enough purposefulness to suggest this ain't a flea market.

The shelves in the living room hold about 350 books at the moment, so we've spent a wee bit of time choosing which books to include out of our general collection for general public viewing. Many are faves or collections of a fave author; others are placed to start conversations if someone sees it. Yet others I've purposely placed to raise eyebrows.

And sometimes, stacks are inevitable, like this pile awaiting our eyes...