music and architecture – #LetsBlogOff

Architecture is music in space, as it were a frozen music” – Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling

– Scene:

You’re standing in the main lobby. The doors open and you enter. A few more file in, it’s early. They’re all headed to their cubicles.

The doors close.

And then it starts. The music. Well, at least I’m sure someone calls this crap music. But…what…what is my foot doing? Damn it, I recognize this tune. It’s a Kenny G rendition of Pink Flloyd’s The Wall. I can’t help it, I’m humming along to the slaying of a great song. Is that guy whistling?

The doors open.

Oh thank God. I’m outta here!

– Scene

image courtesy of google

Yeah, we’ve all been there. Don’t deny it, you like muzak just as much as the next guy. It’s like coming up on a train wreck – you can’t NOT look.

Architecture is like that too – you can’t not look. It’s a musical melody. There are good melodies and bad melodies. Even some that don’t make any sense at all. But whether the melody is good or bad, architecture, like music, is a composition, an activity, a coming together of various parts to make a whole. Spiro Kostof put it best when he said “Architecture is a social act and the material theater of human activity.”

image courtesy of - project unknown

We may think of architecture as being this static thing, this immoveable Goliath, but in reality architecture is a play, a symphony of light and sound and smell and even taste. It is at once sculpture, science, painting, music and light.

architecture and light - image courtesy of - project unknown

Architecture, as Frank Lloyd Wright put it, is the mother art. An architect draws from any source that inspiration that he/she can use to create, to mold and to shape civilization in a balance of form and light. We can’t escape it. It’s never out of sight or out of mind.

manic monday – modern living in 128 sf

The Tiny House movement is BOOMING. It’s all over the news, blogs, the web…it’s everywhere. And in searching through so many of the “tiny home” blogs and websites, an interesting trend emerges that I wanted to talk about: They all look almost exactly the same. There is a decidedly “traditional” style to the majority of tiny homes out there on the market and I am wondering why this is. Is there just a tiny home “style” that naturally takes shape because of functional concerns or is it just an aesthetic choice? I propose that it’s mostly aesthetic. Let me explain.

If you take a typical Tiny Home design, what do you see? You see a typical rectangular plan with a steep gable roof that accommodates a loft space. There are obvious height and area concerns here because most tiny homes, in order to be permitted need to be attached to a trailer frame to be classified as a mobile structure. This is the only way to get around building and zoning code requirements for living spaces (which are really stupid and arbitrary by the way).

Image courtesy of tiny house blog

So, above is a picture of your typical tiny home. Most designs will take cues from this theme – a simple framed gable structure on a 8′ x 16′ trailer. The roof is typically a steep 45 degree pitch in order to accommodate the loft with enough head room to use the space underneath. Now, I ask, is this really the most efficient way to design a roof structure when square footage is a premium?

Answer – not really.

This isn’t to say that the above design isn’t functional or even efficient, but like any thing else in life there is room for improvement. Let me also say that I doubt I’m the first guy to think of this either. I’m clever, but not THAT clever.

Solution – a dome roof.

example of domed roof on tiny home trailer without loft

I know…simple, right? Well, after pouring through page after page of google images it seems it’s not so simple. I did come across a few examples of tiny homes that had domed roof profiles, but these were few and far between. What’s so special about a dome roof on a tiny home, you might ask? Well, when your goal is to maximize the usable space while minimizing the overall height of the structure, a dome is the way to go. If you think back to geometry class, if you draw a diamond shape (half of the diamond would be our gable) and then draw a circle with a diameter equal to the diagonal of the diamond (half of which would be our dome) then you easily see the square footage that you’re gaining in this type of roof.

square (gable) within a circle (dome)

So, again, I’m not the first guy to think of this. But I wonder, why aren’t there more popular Tiny Home designs that take advantage of this simple design aesthetic? I’m hoping a few tiny home enthusiasts will see this and offer their own 2 cents to the discussion. Tiny homes aren’t for everyone, much as container homes are also not for your average homeowner, but they do offer unique and interesting solutions for those looking for the ultimate in “downsized” living and I hope to see much more of this alternative architectural style in the future.

collaborative architecture

Since before the word “coworking” made its way into my vocabulary, I’ve had a desire to create a collaborative working environment for architects – a CO-ARCH space, as it were. The goal of this space, this alternative practice, has always intended to be run by 2 or 3 core people or partners with floating desks/offices that could be either rented or leased monthly/yearly. Ideally there would always be at least one space free for a new collaborator to come through.

Fast forward to today and coworking has permeated every facet of modern entrepreneurial life. We’re also in a time when architecture is going through a fundamental shift in the way we practice as well as the kinds of clients we go after. So, I have to think that now is the time that Co-Arch can take a foot-hold in a community of like-minded creatives and flourish. “Competition” is always the first road block that pops to mind.

And it’s almost always the first question that other architects and designers ask when I talk about this concept – “how does it work when you bring your clients into an office with other architects and designers milling around?” And this is a wonderful point to make. Because in this economy, and even before our current recession, competition among architects has always been fierce. Look no further than any moderately profiled design competition and you’ll see the cut-throat nature inherent in the architectural spirit. “Ego” is our best ally and our worst enemy. It is our ego that pushes us to take chances with clients, to push the envelope with engineers and consultants, to dare to say “make it work” and mean it. The ego has also marooned us on an island of our own making where we constantly fight for even the most mundane projects and fees. All in an effort to keep practicing the art and business of architecture.

Co-Arch is about more than just the business of architecture, however. It’s about the profession. The question of how do we compete with competition is simple: Co-Arch is not for those looking to further themselves so much as they are looking to further the profession of architecture, to do good work with like minded individuals who share real passion for the art of architecture, and make some money at the same time.

Co-Arch is only for those architects, designers, and artists with a true collaborative spirit; a sense of purpose in sharing their knowledge and expertise to help others in the profession, both young and old. The idea that “this is my project” should be left at the door. After all, one of the first hard learned lessons in architecture is NONE of our projects are “our” projects. They belong to the client. We are simply providing the vehicle by which our clients realize their projects. Getting beyond this first truth is at the heart of a collaborative practice. By operating under this blanket of serving the client rather than serving our own career we can much easier skip across the aisle and enlist the help of other architects and designers on a project by project basis to best serve the client and the profession as a whole.

The idea of Co-Arch has come from nearly a decade in practice observing what I think to be a detriment to the profession and to our built environment. Co-Arch is what I see as part of the answer, a necessary step towards better architects, and more importantly better architecture.

If anyone would like to talk with me more about this idea, please contact me or post your comments, and lets keep the conversation going.

manic monday – sketching utensils

A while back my friend Brinn penned a post about pens. And recently my other friend Bob Borson penned a post about sketchbooks. Recently I also penned a post about the connected path between brain and paper for architects. All of this penning got me thinking about pens and sketching. What are the best pens, pencils, and markers for architects and sketching?

For me one of the most critical qualities to look for in any sketching instrument is LINE. Is the line uniform? Is it easy to control? Can I change the quality of the line with pressure or angle? In the case of pencils, will the line get chunky and smudge if I use too much force? Or will it be barely visible on the page?

I went through my bag and grabbed a few of the pens and markers that I keep constantly on hand for sketching, writing, drawing, whatever and did this little sketch to demonstrate the various qualities of line that most architects will work with.

The chosen sketching utensil for any artist, more often than not, can be almost as unique as the artist. At the end of the day, as architects and designers, whatever you sketch with should feel comfortable; it should just feel right. But ultimately, what you sketch with is not nearly as important as the simple act of sketching. They say a photographer is only as good as his last photo, or a writer on as good as his last book. Well, an architect is only as good as his/her ability to translate ideas into discernible reality on paper.

ecotechdesign – ecotechbuild

Here’s a link to a video interview with Architect Scott Perry founder of Ecotechdesign and Ecotechbuild. This guy has some sweet ideas. Can’t wait to see his own home project completed.

Video Link


you smelt it you dealt it – #LetsBlogOff

I think we’ve all been stuck in an elevator with a few too many people and suddenly a rancid odor makes it’s way into your nasal passages and now you’re looking around wondering “oh my god what did I EAT??!!” and “I hope no one else can smell that…”. But of course they can. It’s an elevator – a small, cramped, metal box with no ventilation….duh.

But that’s not really what we’re talking about here for this week’s Lets Blog Off. What we’re talking about is the link between the sense of smell and memory. Our sense of smell, while not on par with our furry friend Fido, is one of the most powerful senses we have available to us. The human nose is remarkable in that it not only allows us to discern scent – such as our elevator scene above – but it also aides in our sense of taste. Want to test it out? Next time you sit down to a meal, plug your nose and see how different food tastes. You’ll be amazed. Everyone else will laugh because you’re wearing a clothespin on your face, but whatever. It’s all in the name of science and learning right?

Ok, back to smelling stuff. We’ve all got those typical memories of Grandma’s apple/pecan/blueberry/snozeberry/random-whatever-berry pie cooling in the kitchen. And those smell memories are great; they remind us of family and home and feeling safe and secure and…well, hungry. But what about the effect our sense of smell can have on our memory of architecture? After all, architecture is experienced best with all of our faculties, not just sight or touch or hearing, but also smell and even taste.

Building materials require all of the senses – visual, tactile, auditory, olfactory, and gustatory (I had to look that one up – don’t judge me). And our experience is changed not just by individual materials being employed in a building project, but also by various combinations of building materials. For example, polished concrete and glass will have a much difference effect on all our senses then rough, board formed concrete and gypsum board. From here you can use your own imagination on the myriad of material combinations that could elicit varying responses as we move through a space.

And all of these senses working together create a memory of our experience in a place. Think of the last time you went to a large cathedral church. The floors and walls were stone, some rough, others smooth. The sound of your foot steps reverberated off of almost every surface and echoed loudly high up in the vaulted ceilings. Light bounces through stained glass windows, the air feels cool and still. Perhaps you can even taste and smell the moisture in the air, a dampness that seems to hang suspended.

Another example would be your home. The colors are warm and inviting, finishes are smooth and comforting and soft. Perhaps there are exposed heavy timber framing that offers a tactile connection to the outdoors. You can even smell the sap that has long since dried on the wood, or the tongue oil used to polish the beams.

Our senses are constantly working together to create memories of all the people and places we’ve come in contact with. If you take one of those senses away, the experience becomes completely different. As architects we should be keenly aware of this and strive to create unique and wonderful experiences for the end user of our buildings so they take away inspired memories that stay with them and reveal a deeper sense of not just using a building, but being a part of it. After all, a building without people to experience it will fall down, crumble and blow away, but a building that encourages use and interaction will last forever.

manic monday: SIPs – why they’re awesome and why you should care

I love new technology, especially when it means that I get new stuff in my materials library.  The last couple of years, one of the hottest new technologies for modular construction has been SIP panels.  So, this prompted a little investigation to find out what are the benefits and ideal uses for this wondrous material.  Here goes:

First, what is a SIP?

typical SIP wall

Well, Wikipedia tells us that a SIP (Structural Insulated Panel) is “a composite building material. They consist of an insulating layer of rigid polymer foam sandwiched between two layers of structural board. The board can be sheet metal, plywood, cement or oriented strand board (OSB) and the foam either expanded polystyrene foam (EPS), extruded polystyrene foam (XPS) or polyurethane foam.

SIPs share the same structural properties as an I-beam or I-column. The rigid insulation core of the SIP acts as a web, while the OSB sheathing exhibits the same properties as the flanges. SIPs combine several components of conventional building, such as studs and joists, insulation, vapor barrier and air barrier. They can be used for many different applications, such as exterior wall, roof, floor and foundation systems.” – thank you Wikipedia.

Further investigation into SIP technology will tell you that this is not really a “new” material.  Investigation into these types of stress-skinned panels for construction began back in the 1930’s but didn’t gain much attention until the 1970’s. What I find interesting about that is, according to wikipedia, research into stress skinned panel construction began by Forest Products Laboratory as a way to conserve forest resources way back in the early1930s and yet here we are some 90 years later still relying mostly on stick frame construction for our homes and even light commercial buildings.

The modern structural insulated panel got it’s start in the 1940’s after it was determined that the stress skinned panels could be designed to take on all of the structural load rather than just a portion. Various types were developed, some with plywood or hardboard, and even treated paperboard but this was not suitable to outdoor exposure. In the 1960s polystyrene cores were used and have remained in use even today.

SIP wall and roof intersection

Why you should care.

As the process of manufacturing SIP technology continues to improve, I begin to wonder more and more why this modular material is not used more often? Obviously cost is the gut reaction item that comes to mind. But not when you compare a typical stick frame wall of R-19 with a SIP wall of the same value. A SIP wall, being what it is, has almost no thermal bridging, whereas a stick framed wall has thermal bridging every 16″ o.c. This significantly effects the total performance of the wall and even effects your HVAC system design, thus costing more money. But even still, why would any homeowner trade such an increase in performance and time (construction time that is) for what is arguably a minimal savings in overall construction cost?

The answer almost always comes down to ignorance – clients/homeowners simply are not aware of the real benefits and savings of various “high tech” materials over conventional stick framing. BUT, there is a second and more important answer here. And it’s a problem that I’ve talked about quite a bit – Architects do not advocate as they should for increased building performance when faced with budget issues. Compounding this problem is the contractor trying to save a buck wherever possible to increase project profit.

Architects, being constantly at a disadvantage when it comes to advocacy and education, are nonetheless the last line of defense for our clients to ensure that the building they get will not just respect an arbitrary construction budget, but will also perform to a higher quality standard. Products like SIPs, ICF, Insulated Metal Panels, AAC walls, and others are available to help architects and contractors create more efficient and, hopefully, more beautiful buildings that perform to a higher standard saving precious energy and money. Architecture is about more than initial cost. A building must perform as efficiently as it was built.