urban inspiration: less is more in las vegas!

I was on a bidness trip last week in Las Vegas (yapping about salty water...) and just so happened to be staying downtown near the Frank Gehry. I got up early the next morning and walked down to check it out. To say the area is transitional is an understatement. I didn't feel threatened, but was certainly uneasy (a lot of shady characters walking around). Nonetheless, it was a good walk and a chance to gawk at a lot of new construction, most of it modern in design.

I'm not a big fan of Gehry's "melted office building" buildings, but peeking into the interior, I get it. The play of light coming through those melted windows is pretty darn spectacular. Perhaps the Gehry has inspired other developers since all the other new construction in the area is of a modern flavor.

I included a photo of an old wall that seems to be midcentury modern inspired (and a potential idea for a wall at the back of the property. Oh, and I had to take a photo of that nearly naked young lady associated with a hair salon (?!?!) and Mies van der Rohe's famous statement "Less is more". Not surprisingly, "less is more" means something completely difference in Vegas than in architecture...


adjacency and massing

Architect 2d provided us with “massing models” and “adjacency diagrams” for consideration. The adjacency diagrams show the rudiments of our program (rooms we’d like) relative to each other, the lot, and the neighbor’s houses. The massing models show the rudiments of what the buildings look like. The key word here is “rudiments”: there’s still a long ways to go (aesthetics, windows, cat doors).

We presently have three schemes with two permutations for Scheme 1. Scheme 1A is a linear house plan oriented east-west that hugs the southern boundary of the lot. The front of the property has an abstract front wall with an outdoor entry offset from the actual entry. It’s an interesting concept with a simple (at this point) wall separating the inner world from the outer (the bride likes it). With the garage in the back, the outdoor space is divided into three parts: the “public” space at the front, the “living” (and hence shared with guests) space in the middle, and the private space with the garden, worms, and whatnot (including the “master bedroom” outdoor space) in the back.

I’m liking the layout, division of space, and relative privacy of the garage from the street, but I’m not so sure about the abstract wall (unfriendly?), the open driveway hole to the nether reaches of the property (burglary issue?), and the tunnelish entry sequence. I also recognize that each of these issues can be dealt with if we progress with this scheme. (Click images for larger versions)

Scheme 1B moves the garage flush with the “abstract” wall. That takes care of the “burglary issue”, but dissolves the division of outdoor space in the back (meet the worms!). Architect 2d notes that this is probably the most cost effective layout: linear house and minimal driveway.

Scheme 2 has the house massed toward the front of the lot in more of a north-south orientation. The garage is located toward the mid-rear (minimizing the street impact). The back yard is open to the house in a meet-the-worms kinda way (although garden walls could always be put up). Architect 2d notes that this scheme has the best street presence.

Scheme 3 uses a car court approach with a side-entrance garage and turnaround in the front of the property. The “public” spaces of the house (kitchen-dining-living) are separate from the “private” spaces of the house (bedrooms) and connected by the entry/hall. Given the “feature” stairway (it would have to be nice given its location) and the sprawling floorplan, Architect 2d notes that this is prolly the most expensive scheme.

Well, there you have it: three schemes. We meet with the architect soon to discuss. Let us know what you think!

[diagrams by Architect 2d]

a question or two (or a hundred and fifty...)

Architect 2d sent us a lengthy questionnaire concerning our future home. The questions centered on what sort of amenities the various rooms would have and our opinions on how spaces connect to each other. For example, for the living room, some of the questions concerned:

-       the television (Will there be one? How big? Wall mounted?),
-       furniture (Sofa? Chair? Coffee table? Entertainment center?),
-       amenities (Fireplace?),
-       entertaining (How many people does the room need to accommodate?), and
-       relationship to other spaces (Open to other rooms? Self contained?).

Similarly, we answered questions on the dining room, kitchen, utility room, stairs, study/office, master bedroom, master bathroom, master closet, guest room and bathroom, and other bedrooms. There were also questions on carport, garage, how interior spaces relate to each other and to the outdoors, suggested interior and exterior finishes, major landscape features, and outdoor cooking areas. I [ahem] added a section on desired green features.

Richard Neutra was infamous for sending new clients detailed questionnaires concerning their needs and habits. A good practice, methinks. Neutra referred to “client interrogation” as an art and a science which allowed him to have a deeper collaborative relationship with his clients. His questions included what spaces were needed and what would be done in those spaces but also concerned family history, habits, and likes and dislikes.

Methinks questionnaires are a good thing. One, it gets the clients (that’s us!) thinking about some of the multitudes of questions out there. Two, it let’s the architect know what needs to be considered when designing the house. And three, it documents these thoughts and “decisions” for prosperity and all of the parties (“I never said I wanted a helipad!” “Well, if you look right here on what you wanted for the kitchen…”). The only thing that makes me nervous about it is that it’s easy to give Santa a long list of wants and desires, but Santa may not have enough room on his sleigh…

[photo by mwah, taken last week at the Gorilla Run]


waking up to architecture

Every morning we wake up to the new federal courthouse under construction about a block away (photo above from our bedroom window). It's a glorious site. The design is unusually inspired for a federal building, especially compared to the Hampton Inn Michael Graves designed for federal affairs in Nashville (Graves needs to stick to toasters and teakettles...). Although I'm somewhat bummed the feds didn't choose someone local to design the courthouse, Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, with some help from some locals, came up with a fantastic design.

Federal courthouses these days, especially with the ever-present threat of domestic and international terrorism, aren't the most open and cuddly buildings around. Therefore, the Austin judges, to their credit, asked the architects to develop an "unusually extroverted" building, doubly important because the structure faces a public park, Republic Square. Along those lines, the building actively engages the park, is "front-faced" on all sides, has lots of windows and elevated outdoor areas, and, reportedly, a green roof. In a nod to the farmers market held in the park every Saturday, the street between the courthouse and the park will be closed off and designed to accommodate the market. Hows that strike yer turnips?

The building is subtractive cubist with a facade made of glass, crenulated limestone, and metal that changes in color from silver to bronze to black depending on the angle of light (I wonder what that stuff is). The architects state that "[t]he stability of the cubic form exemplifies the strength, coherence and dignity of the judicial system." The New York Times thinks the design represents tension "between the desire to uphold core democratic values and a growing sense of instability".

The building has a number of green features including rainwater harvesting, daylighting, and a super-efficient HVAC system. The grounds will include an outdoor jury garden for [ahem] contemplation. The building aims for LEEDS silver.

As an interesting historical note: Austin's current courthouse is an austere art deco ditty built with federal stimulus dollars in the 1930s in response to the Great Depression, while this new courthouse is being built with stimulus dollars in response to the Great Recession (the project had been conceived earlier but benefitted from being shovel ready when stimulus funding became available).

When it's finished, I hope I get summoned to jury service!


an early morning lot slog

We met Architect 2d and a colleague of his, the Usonian House expert (more on this Usonian bidness in a coming post), to slog the lot this morning. We gawked at the air compressors (yes, they are ridiculous), the electric service, the trees, the curb cut, the solar orientation, and the view potential. We (all of us) talked about solar exposure and potential locations of the garden, garage, sound control, and house. We (my bride and I) have decided to not express a strong preference on what goes where, in part because we dont have a strong preference on what goes where at this point, and in part because we dont tell our doctor whats wrong with us. I read an article about how to interact with your doctor a few years ago. A major point that stuck with me was: Dont tell the doctor what you think your malady is; tell the doctor your symptoms and let her tell you what she thinks you have. Were trying to apply the same thing with the architect: Share the concern (for example, garages are ugly) and let the architect come up with the solution (and if he proposes that we not have a garage, Im going on a five-day bender).)

Architect 2d has decided not to look at The Architects design until later in his design process (makes perfect sense to me). At that point he wants to see it and find out what we liked about it and then explore how those elements might be included in his design. Unexpected, but nice!

We bid the architects adieu and continued with our day.

[photo of the lot in leafier days by mwah]


austin architects: a small collection of stuff bubba likes

A local reader suggested that I show photos of the work done by local architects to give the out-of-towners a sense of the talent here. Excellent suggestion: We are swimming in swimmingly great work here in Austin, in part because we have some great architects and in part because we have great folks that want modern. Below are some of my favorite projects in and around town in no particular order. Photos are shamelessly cribbed from each respective architect’s web site.

Bercy Chen designs some freaking fantastic houses. A lot of their stuff is ultra-modern and spacey.

Universal Joint Design Associates appears to have only done one residential build, but it’s a real neat one with a metal turtle under it.

Dick Clark Architecture consistently does solid (high-end) work out and about town. Their houses are often on AIA home tours and are detailed gorgeous.

Alterstudio Architects has thrown up some rather inspiring and creative work around town. There’s a lot of eye candy on their web page (and I’ve been [legally] inside the first two shown below!)

M J Neal is/was one of my local faves. Sadly, rumor has it he has left Austin for greener pastures (his ultra-cool home [with the red bits below] was recently on the market for a steal…). His work is ultra high end and ultra modern with nearly everything (and I mean everything) custom. The houses we've seen of his (the top two) are somewhat introverted with controlled extroversion (and my bride is not a fan...).

Cottam Hargrave is one of those architects where I reckon you have to be one of the top 0.1% to afford (or be their photographer...), but my o my what beautiful things they do. Prolly our favorite central Texas home is that first one shown down below: a Texas version of the glass house called "The Ranch" located just north of Austin.

Pollen Architecture has put together some neat stuff. Really like that first project down there where they filled the gaps in a plastic sheet with different materials to get some great “tonal variation”.

And finally, KRDB has some stuff that really gets them two by fours to stand up straight!

Whelp, that's my list. Let me know if you think I made an egregious omission or someone else needs/deserves inclusion.


my kiss-and-tell manifesto...

When I first started this blog, I made a conscious decision to not name names. And then I thought, why not? My three readers want to know those names! And so I named names. That’s all fine and dandy when the days are always sunny and the breezes smell of rose petals, but when the storm clouds collect and the wind knocks over the porta-potty, it’s ultimately best not to publicly kiss (or, more accurately, kiss off) and tell. So I took the names off. Nonetheless, some people, the good people, deserve to get named.

So here’s my kiss-and-tell manifesto:

1.    If someone does a great job and said job is complete (that is, they are no longer needed on the project [which means the builder, the architect, and the wife are not eligible for naming until the whole she-bang is done]), I will name that someone. The good-uns deserve recognition. I should note that getting named doesn’t mean perfection (although it helps greatly). There will be errors. But how those errors are dealt with will determine whether or not names get named (unless the errors turn into a comedy of errors). Note that, similar to a mutual fund, past performance does not guarantee future results. The buyer still needs to beware.
2.    If someone does a crappy job, they ain’t getting named, but by Jove, I’m gonna write about it. I might reveal the who-dat’s in private conversation depending on the inquisitor and the number of cocktails I’ve imbibed (just as a non-blogger would do), but I won’t on this blog. Sorry. Perhaps they were incompetent, perhaps they had a bad day, or perhaps they had a one-out-every-one-hundred customers brain fart. Nonetheless, I honestly hope they learn something from the experience, change their evil ways, and become capable of providing someone (anyone?) great service.
3.    If someone is peripheral to the whole operation (like those architects we interviewed and didn’t select), I don’t plan on naming ‘em on the blog (although they may be revealed later in the context of something else if all I have to say are nice things).

When I started this blog, my intent was to accurately portray the process in something I would have wanted to read before diving in myself. However, once Architect 1.0 became aware of this humble electronic tome, I needed to be careful about what I posted to prevent the blog from stressing the relationship. Unfortunately, from the standpoint of accurately portraying the (potential) drama in-bedded in the process from the perspective of the client, that calculus will still play a part in what I post here. However, just so you don’t think everything is sunshine and rose petals, here on out I will use the top-secret phrase “[muffled grunts]” when I’m frustrated that I “can’t” tell you the full story [muffled grunts] [Wow! So soon?!?!].

During the interview-a-herd-of-architects process, I was concerned this blog was going to prevent us from hiring someone (one architect dropped a major [vaguely critical] hint that he had read it). At one point, I thought of taking this sucker down lest we get stuck with a grey-haired dude armed with a pencil sharpener and a T-square grunting “Interwebs!!! I don’t need no stinkin’ interwebs!!! Now let me tell you about dog trots and outhouses…” Fortunately, it appears we’ll get a house with an indoor pooper. The blog is still here; the horizon before us…

austin cubed: Now with email notification!

Look to the upper right for a little box where you can subscribe to this blog via email. It might be a more convenient way to learn of new posts. I'm also hoping my bloggie friends (Ms. Green House, are you listening?) add this feature to their blogs soon. Bubba needs instant notification.

and so it begins again...

This past Friday we had our first meeting with Architect 2d (I feel like we need to hold him down and brand him with his serial number so he can be identified later in case he shows up in someone elses pasture). This first meeting included a discussion of budget, a signing of the agreement, and a couple action items for us. I still need to post about budget concerns related to resale value (still thinking things through), but heres the approach were taking: We have a core budget that were going to use to design the house. By core budget, I mean a budget to build a house with typical, generally-expected amenities. The core budget was guided, in part, by a guesstimate of the market price of the house or what a spec builder would shoot for in building a house. Then, on the side, we have a gewgaw budget. The gewgaw budget includes those things you wouldnt likely see on a spec house but are things we want in our house. The gewgaws are also items that dont necessarily add value to the house, at least not at a one-dollar-of-value-to-one-dollar-of-cost ratio.

Following this approach, the architect will develop the design within the limits of the core budget rather than the full potential budget or the Ill-rip-your-eyes-out-with-your-T-square-if-it-goes-over budget. Given our personal experience thus far and based on what weve heard from friends whove worked with architects as well as architects themselves, architects are generally terrible at keeping your house within the budget. To a certain degree, this is part of the process: A good architect will be striving to get the most design bang for your buck and will be pushing the (building) envelope (and hence the budget) to get there. Therefore, you can pretty much assume that whatever they come up with, it will be higher than the target. At that point, its just a matter of how much higher and how to address the higher number (such as add more money to the mix, cut features and finishes, find a different [possibly less capable] builder, redesign, fire the architect).

When we interviewed architects, we specifically asked whether or not they consider cost during the process (But of course!and how well they do once bids comes in. We heard numbers of plus or minus five percent (although Id wager things lean toward that plus).  Of course, architects are not going to tell you they suck at making those cost estimates (for example, I doubt Architect 1.0 tells potential clients he overshot our budget by 60 percent the first time he designed our house and 45 percent the second time). Therefore, putting a strong you-defined budget bound on the architect at less than the full potential budget or the Ill-rip-your-eyes-out-with-your-T-square-if-it-goes-over budget is a good idea (although it doesnt guarantee results...). Another good reason for clearly defining a core budget is to ensure you dont lose features you really want to value engineering, the process of cutting amenities and finish to get the project to fit your budget. Yet another reason is having a built-in contingency fund in case things go awry during construction (for example, if concrete gets more expensive because someones building an F1 race track just outside of town). And finally, in terms of resale value, you get to make eyes-and-wallet-wide-open decisions on gewgaws you want that may not add resale value.

I came up with this approach by my little ole self, so who knows if it will work. On the other hand, this approach seems rather obvious, so surely someone else has done it. Nonetheless, time will tell

Once we had an understanding on the core budget and how gewgaw decisions would be made, we signed an agreement with the architect, wrote him a check for the retainer, and talked about starting the design phase. As part of programming (figuring out what activities the house needs to accommodate), the architect emailed us a questionnaire with about 150 questions. (As an aside, I started reading a book titled The Architects Guide to Residential Design last week, and it is HOLY CRAP!!! poop-in-your-pants good. Even better, its clear that Architect 2d, to his credit, has read and taken to heart what is in this book. Stay tuned: I feel a haiku coming on).

You might be saying to yourself Holy what-the-hell-happened-to-the-Saints last night! Thats a lot of questions! (My bride said I hope youre taking the lead on answering those.). In my opinion, long, detailed questionnaires are good things. Very good things (but not necessarily poop-in-your-pants good: thats a whole different level of good). There are lots of decisions to be made and tracked, so the process begs thoughtful documentation. As a side historical note, Richard Neutra was famous for sending clients long, detailed questionnaires. Good for him. Perhaps he was the first.

And finally, the architect asked for a copy of the survey with topography and trees. Fancy that.

So it begins again! Having gone through this process once before, it will be interesting to compare and contrast. And its exciting to start dreaming of our new home yet again

[photo by mwah, Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, Texas]


what santa brought bubba

Santa was pretty good to bubba this year. The cat was amazingly cooperative about the antlers. Had a great dinner. Got some architecture books. A new phone case. A cubist flower vase made out of repurposed wood from a torn down house in town. Bonus: I was the fortunate recipient of an abandoned office white elephant gift (Maybe bubba would want this...): an Icelandic art piece of flies made from recycled rubber by Tinna Gunnarsdottir (I am an Icelandiphile as well as a keeper of a Black Soldier Fly larvae colony: Perfect!). I also got an uplifting book called "All My Friends Are Dead." Existentialism and Christmas are a perfect mix...