9.28.2014

the gpcd of sickness and kittens

I've written before about how well our water conservation activities have been going with our gallons per capita daily (what the cool kids call gpcd) getting down to 33 gallons per capita daily. More recently, we've been consistently just below 30. Most recently, over the past billing month, I've been recovering from surgery (a recovery that required several baths a day) and we adopted kittens that turned out to have ringworms (lots of sterilizing clothes washing). That caused last month to jump up to 42 gallons per capita daily.

The City of Austin provides the chart below so you can see usage over time. The high use in September and October of last year was due to (1) a new landscape and (2) no rainwater tank at that time. We didn't blood oath off using city water outside until April of this year.

Here's to good health (and conserving water). They go hand in hand!


9.27.2014

What is Modern? 5. Eager adoption of new materials and technology

Part 5 in a 10-part series on what is Modern.

Le Corbusier's Dom-ino structural concept for houses (1914-1915)

The development of Modernism was sparked by new materials and techniques. In the early days, reinforced concrete and steel caused some to question the forms and styles of the time that didn’t reflect the freedom offered by new structural systems. Some trace Modernism’s roots to the reinforced concrete of Auguste Perret, a French proto-Modernist and early mentor of Le Corbusier. Others trace roots to the steel superstructures of early skyscrapers in Chicago where Louis Sullivan introduced a new way of thinking about ornamentation. Yet others broadened the influence of new materials and technology by pointing to the re-introduction of engineering to architecture, a re-introduction that allowed for the daring of the cantilever, the freedom of window walls, and the use of other nifty “tricks” that manipulated and opened space in ways not seen before.

The steel skeleton of the Reliance Building in Chicago circa 1894. The exterior of the building was about 85 percent glass.

Corbusier leveraged his knowledge of reinforced concrete into free-standing walls, walls that supported his preference for ribbon windows, long unbroken windows that striped the sides of his early buildings. Frank Lloyd Wright borrowed the steel I-beam from Chicago’s skyscrapers to support the dramatic long lines and cantilevers of the Robie House. R.M. Schindler used his knowledge of engineering to transfer loads via wood and reinforced concrete to create space for clerestory windows and window walls, allowing him to thoroughly embrace the outdoors. Richard Neutra was the first to employ a steel superstructure in home construction to skeleton his marquee house, the Lovell Health House.

Steel I-beams support Frank Lloyd Wright's daring cantilevers on the Robie House (1908-1909).

Schindler employed tilt-wall construction for his own house (circa 1920-21).

The reinforced concrete skeleton of the Lovell Beach House by R.M. Schindler (circa 1925-1926).


The steel superstruction of the Lovell Health House by Richard Neutra (circa 1927-28).

Because they lived in a time of rapid technological change, all of these architects quickly embraced new materials and technology during their careers, whether it was plywood (although considered passé today, plywood was vigorously adopted by Wright, Schindler, Neutra, and others back in the day), electronics (new lighting, sound, or communication systems), or climate control.

The spirit of Modernism is steeped in experimentation, and experimentation in architecture is often fed by new materials and technology.

In these modern days, this experimentation may be fed by new building techniques (such as passivhaus construction, smart lighting systems, three-dimensional house printing) as well as by new materials (such as engineered quartz, translucent concrete, industrial hemp, shipping containers). Modernism stays relevant in today’s world by adapting to the available technology and material opportunities.


House printing? Yes, house printing

9.21.2014

gutter guards

I kinda despise cleaning gutters (who doesn't?). It's messy and it's dangerous (six packs of Lone Star and ladders don't mix...). And given that part of our house has two stories, cleaning gutters is even more of a challenge. At first I tried those cheapie plastic inserts that (1) looked awful and (2) simply didn't work all that well (didn't fit well and dislodged with a good wind). All in all, the cheapies were a fail.

After a quick look at Consumer Reports and an in-person inspection at Zingers, we decided to get the Tesla of gutter guards by going with GutterGlove Pro:


These babies are made of aluminum with a stainless steel mesh on top. They integrate best with metal and composition roofs (that long wing there goes underneath the roofing) but our installers (Austin Gutter King) also get it to work with TPO. And they have a nice, finished look about them that complements Modern construction.

The stuff ain't cheap, but it looks good and, thus far, seems to work good. We'll still need to go up there and brush off the screens once a year (or hire someone to do it), but we feel good that these puppies will do the job and last a long long while.

The gutter for the garage with Gutterglove Pro installed. Since we don't have a proper first-flush for the rainwater harvesting system,  these gutter guards also serve as an excellent filter for roof debris. 

9.20.2014

What is Modern? 4. Embracing the environment

Part 4 in a 10-part series on what is Modern.

Le Corbusier put Mother Nature on a pedestal by putting his houses on pedestals such as Villa Savoye (1929-1931)

A writer for the local newspaper recently exclaimed with glee that a contemporary home, unlike unfiltered Modernism, embraces the outdoors. This “radical” contemporary house dared to show greenery through its ample windows, the author inferring that this is something that would be frowned upon by Modernism. Modernism, it seems, requires an Agent Oranging of any landscape viewable from a window. I bet the neighbors would love that...

This could not be farther from the truth. In fact, it was Modernism that introduced the very concept of embracing nature herself in architecture.

Different architects had (have) different views of how you embrace nature with architecture. Le Corbusier tended to put Mother Nature on a pedestal by putting his houses on stilts and framing nature through windows. Frank Lloyd Wright, on the other hand, was on top of Mother Nature in the grass trying to snake his tongue down her throat.

Frank Lloyd Wright rolling in the hay with Mother Nature via Falling Water (1936-1939)

Wright preached the need to embrace the site—its topography, its weather, its geology, its views, its faults—when designing a building. He’s famous for saying “of the hill, not on the hill”; in other words, it’s best to integrate your architecture with nature, not have your architecture dominate the landscape. Wright even worked to have his designs evoke the geography. For example, his Prairie Style houses from the 1890s through the 1930s are meant, through their long horizontal lines, to evoke the flat, glacial-planed prairies of the Midwest. The sandy, gently peaked, and asymmetric roofs at Taliesen West are meant to echo the nearby desert mountains. And his sharply peaked roofs for his Rocky Mountains work ape the mountains themselves.

Corbusier wasn’t about fitting into nature as he was with nature fitting in with his designs (and to be honest, Wright was in this same place until later in his career). Corbusier designed ample patios for outdoor usage and gaps in walls to frame the outdoors as art. His ribbon windows allowed a constant internal visual connection to nature just outside. One house he designed and built even had motorized bushes that could be moved at the press of the button to admire the Paris skyline. 

Inspired by a camping trip to Yosemite and the generally pleasant Southern California climate, Schindler was the first to completely remove the boundary between indoors and outdoors in the duplex he designed for himself, his wife, and his friends, the Chaces. Built in 1922, the Schindler-Chace House remarkably set the stage for California Modern (and perhaps is the first Modern house ever realized). On the public sides, his house has private, tilt-wall concrete façades. Behind those façades are walls of windows and large sliding doors that allow a seamless transition between indoors and outdoors, both visually and functionally. Frank Lloyd Wright and many others adopted this intimacy of indoor and outdoor living into their own architecture. The picture window, itself a bastardization of Modernism's wall of windows, can be traced to Schindler's house.

R.M. Schindler "going camping" by dissolving indoors and outdoors in the Schindler-Chace House (1921-1922).


A more recent way Modernism has embraced the environment is through green building. Building green can achieve a number of goals, including minimizing the cost of building and living in a home to minimizing a home’s footprint for broader environmental and social goals. 

9.17.2014

Some old shots of our lot from back in the day



That house in the middle of the photo above, the house with the two out-buildings in the back, is the house that used to be on our property. This photo was taken in 1965. It shows, among other things, how small the trees were (they had probably only been planted five to ten years before this when the houses were built). The neighbors' houses look the same now as they did back then.


This is where I got the above photo from. There's an enormous oak at the corner today that many would suggest was well over a hundred years old. It's just a bush in this photo! 


This is the HEB at 2222 and Burnet from about 1950. This photo is looking north into what is now our neighborhood. No trees out there hardly at all!


And this is photo looking west with Lamar in the foreground and, to the left, the intersection of Lamar with Airport. The whitish "gash" on the horizon (right where the Hill Country begins) is the Far West area, which used to be a rock quarry. The road that runs from Lamar all the way to the west is Justin Lane. 

9.14.2014

Dancing with architecture: (1) UT Alumni Center and (2) JerryWorld

Looking up in the UT Alumni Center.

The bride and I took a Texas Exes-sponsored bus up to Arlington, Texas, to watch the Longhorns lose  to UCLA. A big reason for going was to see JerryWorld: Jerry Jones' (and Arlington's) stadium for the Dallas Cowboys. We'd been talking about going up to watch a Cowboys game in the new stadium, but once you factor in the cost of tickets, parking, overnight accommodations, food, and hard cider, you're looking at a house payment (no joke...). Seeing the Horns for substantially less via a bus was a great alternative (and although we lost in a sucker punched kinda way, it was a valiant effort).

A few days earlier I was at the Alumni Center, where the bus trip started, to yap about water at a conference. As I awaited my time at the podium, I admired the room, noting that whoever designed the space spent some time on the details. After some interweb searching, I discovered that Charles Moore designed the building along with Richard Dodge.

The building evokes Harwell Hamilton Harris, R.M. Schindler, and Frank Lloyd Wright in its use of wood and how it engages the outdoors. Moore worked with Louis Kahn, among others, before coming to Austin as an architectural professor at the university in 1985. He's mostly noted for his post-Modernist work such as the garish Piazza d'Italia in New Orleans and his strong use of color. His doctoral dissertation, and later a book, was titled Water and Architecture (hmmm...).

The meeting room.

Clever use of painted/stained wood where the treated wood is carried from the outside to the inside. Generally not a good idea to have untreated wood outside in Texas. 

Moore gets a little flamboyant when you look up. 

Wow, that's colorful!

One of the entrances. 

Nice little Harris/Schindler-esque detail on the eaves...

As far as stadiums go, this one built for the Dallas Cowboys is the best one I've ever been in. First rate. The design is gorgeous, the roof opens up (so God can check in on the 'boys...), it's fully air conditioned, the staff are uber-friendly, the food good and diverse, the mega-screens wonderful, the editing quick and multi-angled, and the DJ (yes, they have a DJ) awesome. Again, first rate. People make fun of it (aka, JerryWorld), but, wow, is it neat. My only quibble is with the acoustics: It. Is. An. Echo. Chamber. Chamber. Chamber...

The stadium was designed by Dallas-based HKS, Inc.. They've designed and built a number of stadiums across the planet, including Dell Diamond in Round Rock, the stadium for the Minnesota Vikings, and the current headquarters for Whole Foods in Austin.

Approaching the Deathstar...

Support structures.

Tom Landry looks over the scene.

A reflective sculpture at the main entrance for the peons.

Interior shot.

Even the sandwich architecture is impressive.

That ceiling opens.

Go horns!

9.13.2014

What is Modern? 3. Honesty in materials and design

Part 3 in a 10-part series on what is Modern.

Honesty in architecture takes several forms. In fact, the previous commandment--form follows function--is a flavor of architectural honesty. The form of the building reflects the purpose and uses inside. And even lack of ornamentation could be interpreted as a form of honesty as well. However, honesty here refers to honesty in materials and design.


Honesty in materials means that things are what they appear to be. If your house has what appears to be limestone cladding, then your cladding is, indeed, limestone and not plastic or concrete or some other material meant to evoke stone. There is nothing faux in a Modern house. Bricks? Bricks are bricks. Wood grain on the siding? Wood grain better indicate wood under that paint and not Hardie board or vinyl (wood grain in concrete when it’s clear that it’s concrete is OK). Even better, wood appears as stained wood.

The epitome of honesty in materials is leaving everything in its raw or lightly finished state. Concrete is concrete, wood is wood, steel is steel, glass is glass. However, permutations “are allowed”. Painted stucco, wood, and metal are allowed: they just can’t pretend to be something they are not. Fake marble tile? I don’t think so. Plastic that looks like aluminum? Shudder. Hardie board with fake wood grain? Hear that sound? That’s the weeping ghost of Frank Lloyd Wright. However, all of these materials are acceptable to use in a Modern home as long as they are not pretending to be something they are not. For example, smooth faced Hardie board is OK (and is, in fact, a great material for an affordable Modern house).

Having said all this, there is hypocrisy in the application of this commandment. For example, Neutra’s relentless pursuit of the machine aesthetic caused him to “dematerialize” wood by painting it with metallic paint to make it look like metal (a couple of Neutra’s  assistants always wanted to ask him: “What is the best material to use to build a steel house?”). In many ways, architecture peddles dishonesty. Purists would argue the use of any paint is dishonest. Masonry facades that are not structural could also be considered dishonest. Many of the early Modern buildings used brick walls covered in stucco. Nevertheless, there are certain lines that cannot be crossed in Modern. An occasional white lie is fine; bald-faced lying is not allowed. And if you think about it, honesty is synonymous with quality.


Honesty in design means that everything in the design of the building serves a purpose. There’s nothing extraneous added. You should be able to point to a feature on a structure and hear from the architect that it serves some specific purpose. For example, there aren’t pillars on or  in a Modern house unless the pillars are meeting a structural need (and those pillars better not be ornate or look like fake marble). Even something that looks like a design flourish better have a purpose (or at least a conjured purpose…).

Probably the most egregious example of dishonesty in residential architecture is the non-functional shutter. (Be forewarned: if you are a fixated budding-Modernist soul, the following discussion will ruin your life). Shutters have a purpose in life: to shade or conceal the inhabitants if the inhabitants wish to be shaded or concealed and to protect the windows during storms (and the occasional revolution). Shutters are meant to be unlatched from the outer wall and swung over (and relatched) over the window and vice-versa when the inhabitants want the window unshuttered.  Back in the day, glass was a luxury, so protecting it during storms (and insurrections) was important.

Now take a stroll in your neighborhood and look at the shutters. Unless you live in the historic part of town or a fully Modernist neighborhood, you are going to find a whole lot of non-functioning shutters: Shutters that are sadly bolted to the wall on all four corners, never to swing, never to shade their glassy neighbors.


Drives. Me. Crazy.

There are different degrees of travesty to this travesty. The most glaringly laughable are shutters that would never have a chance of covering their windows, missing dimensions in both length and width. A permutation of this is shutters laughably larger than the windows they are “meant” to cover. The gymnastics that designers/builders/homeowners will go to to include shutters on their house are sometimes gold medal worthy. On the other end of the shutter spectrum are shutters that appear spatially and operatively functional but aren’t (still dishonest, but at least clever).

There are more serious transgressions than shutters. I call it the “Disneyland-effect” where all kinds of fakery is frosted onto a house to match some by-gone style that no longer relevant to today’s world. Fake dormers, fake pillars, false roofs.  

One school of Modern thought is that the structure of a building should be expressed. In other words, you should be able to see what the building is made of and how it is being supported. Think of being in a room and seeing the pillars and beams that form the building. You can see this in many mid-century Modern homes with the rafters evident in the ceiling. Unless you have a massive budget (and don’t care much about energy efficiency), you are probably building in the more conventional balloon style (using two by fours [or sixes]).


9.10.2014

haiku for the book "No Place Like Utopia" by Peter Blake


where the planes dissolve
where inside becomes outside
is utopia

After our house was on the Modern Home Tour, the architects left us a few gifts, and this book was one of them. An interesting read about a dude in the middle of it all such that he knew a number of the architectural movers-and-shakers of the mid-century modern era (as well the early Modernists). He worked with Louis Khan; knew Jackson Pollock, Philip Johnson, and Charles Eames well; was the curator of architecture and design at MoMA; and was editor in chief of the Architectural Forum. He also interacted with Bertrand Russell, Serge Chermayeff, Oskar Stonorov, Hans Knoll, Mies van der Rohe, Buckminster Fuller, Gropius, Rietveld, Marcel Breuer, Gregory Ain, and Neutra.

He had run-ins with Frank Lloyd Wright and said "Frank Lloyd Wright, who lied like a trooper, would have been a bore if he had stuck to the facts." He also said "[Wright] had clearly come to believe that he (or He) was Architecture, and Architecture was Wrightian or it was nothing at all." Blake also noted how poorly Wright treated anyone who worked for him that showed promise, describing Wright as "...always jealous of any talent he thought might threaten his own reputation..."

Blake loved de Stijl neoplasticism ("...one of the noblest and most radical of all modern movements...") and absolutely hated post-Modernism (for this, I love him). He explains why architects of the time hated Modernism being pigeon-holed into a "style",  describing Modernism as "...politically left, anticapitalist, and dogmatically so." Becoming an architect back in those days "...was a commitment to help change the world, nothing less."

And he was an architect who designed some nifty Modern beach houses in the Hamptons (photos below). He also wrote "Form Follows Fiasco", a criticism of Modern architecture (which his friends told him to burn; he seems to have forgotten about the book when he wrote his autobiography...).

All in all a good read with personal insights into the personalities of the big names in Modern architecture. And a good call for a book for me to read!