is it wrong if it's wright?

Been grooving on Frank Lloyd Wright lately. I'm not a big fan of many of his interiors (dark, foreboding, and tall dude unfriendly), but I love his Robie-era sleek exteriors and his late-era Usonian houses. The photo at top is a house we stopped to gawk at from the street in Kansas City. Not a big fan of the house (in one of his Aztec phases...) but love the gate and gate-stop with light. He did something similar with the lights for the interior of one of his homes.

a lot of camping

“I have an unusual request…” came the email from The Architect.

After we bought the lot in late September, we signed an agreement with The Architect in October to design a house. I told him that we weren’t in a pants-on-fire rush to start construction because I didn’t want to start building until early next summer. My job gets a little crazy and unpredictable every other year in the spring. Because I read that it is a good idea to frequently check on progress while building (frequently as in every freakin day), I decided I did not want to be building a house during my busy work time. There is only so much stress a dude can take. That gave us some breathing room to think about the house and not rush design.

As it turns out, The Architect  was a little busy with another project, so the non-rush worked out on his side as well. With his schedule freeing up a little bit, he reached for his sleeping bag. "I want to go camping on your lot, and I want to do it with y'all. Are you in?" My bride immediately said “No way. Where would we pee?” Not a surprising response as her idea of roughing it is staying in a hotel without room service. Me? I responded with “Hell yeah!” It was a kooky idea, and I’m all over kooky ideas. Besides the kookiness, it would give us a chance to spend some quality time with the land and to chat about this and that (including the home-to-be). All it would cost us were the vittles.

Time was of the essence. The end of the year was upon us with its cooler temperatures, and cooler temperatures combined with large amounts of beer dangerously increases the odds of same sex cuddling. We finally settled on a Friday in November with a predicted overnight low in the low 40s. I was already hooked into the neighborhood association enough to be on the neighborhood watch email list, so I sent a quick note about our plans to let the neighbors know that, although we look like bums, we weren’t (and that it was a one-night gig). “You’re going to spend the night in jail,” predicted my bride.

After setting up our tents, we drove several blocks over to the grocery store for provisions (ah, the challenges of the urban outdoorsman). Once we got a fire going (this involved some yard work in picking up branches), we popped the tops of a couple brewskis. After tiptoeing through the typical Texas taboo topics of politics, religion, and livestock, we talked house.

When working with an architect/designer, it's important that he knows what you like and expect. Hopefully your likes and expectations line up with your architect's. That makes things easier. One way of doing this is keeping a file of photos and what-not of what you like with some notes of what you like about it. These might be clippings from magazines or photos printed from the internet. This Website called Houzz offers a free service to do just that with their large and ever-growing collection of home photographs. Since I can make and host web pages, I chose to pull our want list and photos into a web page. I also made sure to include helpful phrases such as wanting "quiet drama" in the foyer and a "large but cozy" master bedroom.

The Architect said he had never had a client put together so much information for him. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not, but I assume it is. Information is good. I think he said it would have taken 83 pages to print it all off, so perhaps we overshared. However, much of it was photographs.

On the web page, we noted what we liked about the lot, what concerns we had, what we plan to do in the house (now and in the future), provided some design guidance (what we like and don't like), listed green features we'd like to see, and posted photographs of "precedents": Houses we really like. I also posted photos of the light switch covers we want.

After grilling some burgers, opening a few more beers, and waving at curious onlookers, The Architect explained that when he thought about us he thought of the book/movie "Where the Wild Things Are". Perhaps it was the beer, but I didn't quite know what he meant. He had a photo from the movie. It looked like a hamster den.

We may be a bit of a conundrum to The Architect. We want a modern house, yet we live in a place built in the 1880s. And the decor in our house, although there are a few modern touches, is mostly grandma. Or maybe, more accurately, grandma on some real good pain meds. When HGTV filmed at our house several years ago, the producer described us as maximalists. And it's true: There's a lot of stuff in our house, but I like to think that it's fairly organized. Over the years, our tastes have trended from grandma-country-shabby chic to modern and minimal. In my mind, a house dictates, to a certain degree, how it should be decorated. Our current houses yearns for country-eclectic. Aside from a few modern touches, you would never guess while perusing through our house that we are (now) modernists at heart. As I told The Architect: If this minimal modern thing doesn't work out for us, we can always junk the place up!

As our pile of aluminum recyclables reached higher and the evening stretched deeper into the dark, we noticed a good amount of traffic noise from the east; the subtle roar of rubber on grooved concrete, most likely from Highway 183, an elevated roadway some 25 blocks away. I hadn't ever noticed highway noise at our current house, deeper in the heart of downtown, but after listening the next day, we can hear Interstate 35. We've lived there for almost 20 years and never heard it before. Amazing how camping outdoors in town can recalibrate your hearing.

Sometime after 1 am, once the neighbors stopped gawking at us through their blinds, we called it a night and crawled into our sleeping bags. The Architect wisely brought a pooch with him who jailbreaked sometime during the night and thoughtfully cleaned the dishes.
After the Earth rotated us back into the photon spray of our solar system's star, I collected some wood, started a fire, and offered The Architect a breakfast beer (for the record: he declined). We ate donuts and worked up some scrambled eggs. I brewed the worst cup of coffee in the history of Western civilization. We packed up our tents and belongings after allowing the morning sun to disperse the dew. Our work was done. The lot had been christened.

And for the record, despite the cold overnight temperatures and large amounts of beer, we each stayed in our own tents.


get with the program

The Architect appeared at our door with a large foam-board-mounted printout of our lot and a herd of cutouts. The Architect said it was time to figure out the "program" for the house: What rooms do we want and where do we want them?

Some rooms are easy: Kitchen? Check. Dining room? Check. Bedrooms and bathrooms? Sure, but how many? And like an artist with a blank canvas or a writer with a blank page, it can be a little daunting to work out the details with a blank lot before you.

Although there are just two of us, we have to think about resale value to some degree. Therefore, we are looking at three bedrooms with an additional "flex" room that could also serve as an additional bedroom. For our lifestyle, these rooms will serve the purpose of (1) the master, (2) a guest room, (3) an exercise room, and (4) an office/studio. A little booshwazee for just two people, but this get-up would also handily serve the average 1.86 kidded family with an extra room to serve as an office, family room, or grandma's retreat.

Because of potential noise issues at the rear of the property, we agreed to place the master at the front of the lot on the second floor with the other two bedrooms. We've envied the treehouse feel of bedrooms on the second floor of other houses we've seen and think the ups and downs of the stairs will be good for our health. Also, we don't plan on spending our last years in this house; however, who knows where life will lead us? Therefore, the flex office-but-it-could-be-a-bedroom will go on the ground floor. Maybe we'll need to use it as a bedroom for us at some point, but hopefully not.

Next we talked about bathrooms. Obviously, the master suite will include one, but what about the other bedrooms? The Architect noted that some high-end houses these days have a bathroom for each bedroom, but that's too much for us to flush. Therefore, we agreed, at this point, to have a shared bathroom between the two extra bedrooms with access to that bathroom being on-suite for one bedroom and through the hallway for the other. That'll work swell with our intended purpose of a guest room. We also talked about the downstairs "public area bathroom", generally a half bath, being a full bath with just a shower. The Architect suggested that the office/bedroom have it's own bathroom, something we initially balked at but are now thinking about given the possible future use of said room. Choices, choices...

With the rooms generally decided, we then talked about the arrangement of the rooms. The Architect proposed a module approach with three main modules with linking modules between them. The street-side main module would hold the living room downstairs and a master suite upstairs. The next main module would hold a kitchen downstairs and a bedroom upstairs, and the third main module would hold the office downstairs with a bedroom upstairs. The first linking module would hold the public entrance (on the side in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright), the dining room, and the stairs. This module would also serve to connect the living room to the kitchen (When The Architect asked about whether or not the dining module should be two stories tall with a bridge connecting the master to the second bedroom, the bride quickly yelped "Bridge!" The Architect was pleased.) The second linking module would hold the "service" entrance and the hallway between the kitchen and the office on the first floor and the bedrooms on the second floor.

We're even talking about having a bridge to the roof of the "garage module" to use that roof space and provide a covered walkway to the house from the garage. With this module approach, The Architect is addressing our desire to have outdoor living spaces (these would be defined by the space between the modules) and a great deal of natural light. It would also make for an interesting house.

We also discussed building placement on the lot. We're fortunate to have a large lot for inside the city, so there is lots of space to work with. Originally, we thought the house would hug the northern edge of the property to take advantage of the potential for solar power, a slightly better view to the south, placement of the garage between us and the air compressor, and an existing driveway cut in the curb. However, this placement was not thermally ideal (you really want your back to the Texas sun) and, because of the substantial amount of real estate needed for a driveway turnaround (she ain't backing her car up that distance, at least not without casualties), much of the ideal garden space on the lot would be paved. So we flipped everything to the south side and feel much better about it. It even saves a tree or two. Early in the design phase, it's important to be flexible and openminded, weighing the pros and cons and listening to your designer/architect and carefully considering their thoughts and ideas.

We also chatted about orientation of the structures. Although our lot is approximately oriented west to east, it's about 20 degrees off. Therefore, to orient the house with the sun (something I very much want to do), the house has to be at a 20 degree angle to the street (something that doesn't set well with the bride's German blood and engineering degree). However, after several post-Architect conversations, she is willing to consider an angled house if there are street-parallel walls to take the angular edge off. Not only would an angled approach be better thermally, it would also (slightly) increase side yard space, give the street-side main module better views, help with drainage and, perhaps, give the project a little more visual interest.

With this feedback, The Architect will start to work up some more detailed, yet still general, plans. He wisely doesn't want to get too detailed too quickly to ensure we are both on board as the plans come together. Nonetheless, we got a lot worked out at our first meeting. Given how much fun it was to meet and talk about the program for our house (several hours went by like nothing), we can't wait to see what The Architect has for us next time.


sound thinking

While watching an HGTV show last weekend, two wild and crazy guys were looking to flip a house but were having trouble finding a buyer. "The property has a fatal flaw," explained the agent. "There's a highway behind it. That means the property is worth 10 to 20 percent less than if it didn't have that flaw."

Our lot has a fatal flaw: It's got a little Fahrfenugen behind it. Because the lot is on the edge of the neighborhood, it backs up on property zoned commercial. At present, this is a Volkswagon dealership. The good news is that the large building is behind us. The bad news is that the air compressors are behind us. And air compressors are loud.

Ultimately, the charms of the lot outpaced the negatives. And my bride, an engineer, is convinced an engineering solution can be attained to deal with the issue. Furthermore, we benefitted from the fatal flaw: We got the lot at 10 to 20 percent less than if it were in the middle of the hood. But now we have to deal with those compressors.

Fortunately, we're pals with a sound engineer, and not one of a musical flavor. J. deals with engineering solutions to deal with noise. He's had an interesting career of working on embassies around the world (where keeping sound from leaking out is an issue...), on hotels near highways and airports, and various other sound issues. He's kind of a quiet guy.

I met J. at the lot, and he quickly set up a microphone and decibel reading and recording equipment. And then we chatted (quietly) about sound.

Some of what he said is obvious: Dealing with the sound at the source is better than dealing with the sound at a distance. And dealing with sound at a distance means dealing, at a minimum, with any line of sight to the source. After that, there are some subtleties through which J. earns his keep.

So how do you deal with sound at the source? The compressors have pressure release valves that periodically hiss like angry sea serpents. J. noted that for 15 to 20 bucks, you can buy silencers for the pressure release valves. I'm guessing that James Bond has silencers on his air compressors. As for the compressors themselves, the ideal solution is to close them in. J. mentioned that there are special steel panels with interiors perforated to absorb sound. J. recommends steel panels because its important to have a good seal. Given that these are air compressors, they have to be somewhat open to the atmosphere. Here, J. recommends louvers pointed to the sides. Another option is to hang sound curtains about the compressors. Sound curtains, which come in different weights, are designed to absorb sound.
If the dealership doesn't take pity upon our sensitive ears, we'll have to deal with the sounds at a distance. J. asked if we were concerned about hearing the sounds in the house or hearing the sounds while outside. "Ummmmm," I ummmed. "Both?"

For dealing with sound outside, it's important to break that line of sight in the proper way. Building a fence is a possible way, but it has to be solid. A traditional plank fence will only reduce the sound minimally because of gaps. The ideal situation is to build a concrete wall with concrete blocks with a surface designed to absorb the sound. A reflective surface would bounce the sound back at the dealership's steel building and then bounce in back into our yard. J. says these special blocks are only 10 to 20 percent more expensive than standard blocks. And since we plan to put a garage back there, they can be be part of that structure.

So how do you keep sound out of your house? According to J., don't have any windows. Houses, of course, have to have windows unless you happen to be a vampire. One choice is to not have any windows in the direction of the sound source. That's a possibility at our place, although the sun wouldn't be able to kiss us in the morning. And we like to smooch the sun in the morn.

Typical windows are terrible at keeping sound out, even double and triple paned windows. Jack says that the narrow air gaps are great at transferring low and high sound frequencies. To avoid that transfer, you need at least a two to four inch gap! But fear not, there is a special kind of window made with laminated glass, the same kind of glass in your car's windshield. Laminated glass has two pieces of glass with clear rubber between them. In automobiles, this rubber serves to keep the glass from spewing all the place in a wreck and cutting your whiskers off. For a house window, it serves to dampen all the frequencies. And they come double paned.

Jack noted that it's important to think about the location of vents. Vents need to be vented where they are not facing the sound source. This not only includes roof vents, but also dryer vents and air vents.
So where do we go from here? We'll work with the architect to design the house to "respect" the rear of the lot. We'll also, at some point, go talk to the dealership to see what they're willing to do. An enclosure will probably require a variance from the city since the compressors are within the setback.

Silencers are golden.