Posts Tagged ‘utilitarian’

A friend recently recommended this book:

Good House Cheap House – An Adventure in Creating and Extraordinary Home at an Everyday Price by Kira Obolensky.

The main premise of the book is that you can build your dream house for below market rate prices through creativity, salvaged materials, and hard work.  I will start by saying that I like the idea and I really like a most of the houses that she features. I also agree with Kira that the architect should not be eliminated as a cost saving measure. But now I will pick apart the strategies that she puts forward.

1) Salvaged materials – Generally this is not a viable or significant cost saving measure for most people. It is hard to find and store quantities of building materials. Using used windows doesn’t make sense in most climates because used windows are mostly not up to current energy efficiency standards. Using used framing materials often requires that they be re-certified to prove they can still perform.  Additionally, Labor costs in the United States are usually a bigger share of the budget than the materials….so it doesn’t make sense from a financial standpoint to have paid labor removing nails and cleaning up salvaged materials.  That said, if you do have a place to store materials out of the weather and access to good salvage yards, craigslist, and other places to buy used materials, money can be saved. There is often also character and charm in using salvaged materials..and of course it can be more environmentally sound. The same is true of saving parts of an old building rather than tearing it down and starting from scratch. Unfortunately, it is often cheaper to start from scratch.

2) Creativity – Kira shows many examples of ingenuity and unconventional uses of materials. Honestly, for most people with a hired contractor, I can’t imagine that this saves any money. The idea would have to be communicated from architect to client to builder, or from client to architect to builder or maybe just from client to builder and this often is a challenge.  Frequently new creative ideas scare builders who have to put a price tag on things ahead of time.  Many of the houses in Kira’s book are architects’ own houses. Its much easier to be creative on your own house. You can experiment and don’t have to spend time creating drawings, models, or other tools to convince the client of the idea.  These architects probably did some of the building themselves, eliminating communication altogether.  That said, much of the construction budget goes to finish materials. If you like the aesthetic of plywood as a finish floor or various sheet goods rather than tile for your shower and bathroom floor, curtains instead of doors for the shower and some closets, then you can save money.

It is wonderful to create something beautiful through creative use of basic materials. In my mind this is way cooler than making something beautiful by spending money on expensive tiles, carpets, and other architectural elements.

3) Hard work –  In my opinion, this is the only sure winner, but it also has to be smart work.  Experienced builders and architects and engineers are often more efficient and have tricks of the trade. Doing your own work, design or construction, can sometimes lead to disappointing results.  The hardwork that makes the most sense in my opinion is spending the time to carefully select your architect and builder, spending the time to have your needs and desires and budget thought through, assisting the architect where possible and being available and giving schematic plans sufficient thought and consideration and getting preliminary pricing before moving along to the more detailed construction documents. It is often a good idea to pick a builder early on so the architect and builder can work together for an efficient collaboration. During construction there is plenty to do. Some builders are open to clients helping with the work, others typically bigger companies, want no part of this.  I have had several projects where a small builder was happy to have the owner operate as a carpenter’s assistant. This is a great way to learn and get your hands dirty while having an expert on hand to guide the project. Home owners also frequently help with clean up and dump runs – labor intensive and low skilled parts of the job. Painting is often done by the home owners, but it is often more efficient to paint before finish electrical and plumbing, so it might be inconvenient for the contractor to wait while the homeowner does their own painting. The most important thing that a homeowner can do to make the job more efficient is to be available and spend the time to make decisions as quickly as possible. If every door knob has not been selected prior to construction with the architect, these things will have to be selected during construction. There are a lot of small decisions like this and it is crucial that they don’t cause delays.  It is even more important that you don’t change your mind about certain decisions. changing things late in the game can be very expensive.  Beyond making decisions, keeping your eye on things is always helpful. Even an untrained eye can detect issues and help things go more smoothly.

4) Simplicity – A cost saving measure that Kira does not mention is simplicity. For example: Most kitchens these days have recessed lights, under-cabinet lights and a decorative light in the middle of the room. If you have high enough ceilings to make it work, stick with one big light in the middle of the room. (if your ceilings are not high, you might not get enough light on the work surfaces.)  Every switch and fixture costs money. Complicated roof lines can be very expensive in labor and materials.

5) Lifecycle costs – It is also important to consider the lifetime costs of the building. Incandescent bulbs might be cheaper, but LED bulbs will save you money in the long run. Durable materials will last longer. Money spent on extra insulation will usually save money down the road.

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This cafe in Brooklyn, NY has done a good job of turning what would usually be considered a highly undesirable feature into what almost might be considered an asset. (Sorry that all I have are quick snap shots with my phone.)

Plumbing waste line painted and wrapped in rope ala Alvar Aalto’s Villa Mairea

Plumbing wasteline continues

more pipes

Cheerful blue pipes

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This project is the opposite of my last post. 14000 SF of beautiful space is very nice if you want to fabricate things. No need to squeeze in storage space in every nook and cranny! We are working on improvements to the space for a technology start-up to use it for fabrication and testing of their prototypes.

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Federal Center, Chicago, Mies van der Rohe (Photographed by me at the MoMA, NY)

I worked on a studio project once with a German exchange student whos drawings looked a lot like this. He was very smart and I liked him, but he was not an overachiever or a workaholic.  He kept things simple in part because it was easier that way.  On the other hand you’d probably say that Mies showed remarkable restraint and that to achieve minimalism he spent long hours honing things down to the barest essence, making all the parts speak together in unison with no part left unconsidered.  Less is More.

I took this photo of the same building (to left) a few years ago. Minimalist buildings make a nice backdrop for the colorful Calder sculpture.

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I just finished prototype treasure chest #2, using up more of my wood shop scraps.

It has a heavy Richlite lid and a piano hinge

Perfect for storing gold bullion or underwear and socks.

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Michelle Bachmann’s house with “a grand manor roof” and “European flavor”

Gingrich’s “Mansionette”

Santorum House: “a big rectangular box with holes punched in it for windows. It doesn’t have much to say. Need I say more?”

The New York Times ran this article recently about the homes of the Republican presidential candidates. The review, informed by “interior designers and  design psychologists” (no architects) is generally unfavorable. They make fun of Newt Gingrich’s extensive use of mirrors and Huntsman’s pink love seat with yellow bows. Bachmann’s complex roofline is rather atrocious (no mention of the maintenance issues with such a roof,) and Santorum’s more simple house is called boxy with small punched windows.  The houses are all quite big… mostly around 5500 square feet. One designer who commented in the article said that he’d call them McMansions, but that would give McDonalds a bad name. Wow. That is saying a lot. None of them appear to be designed by architects that were given much latitude, but most of the candidates appear to have dropped some cash on interior designers.  The houses all scream “I am a traditionalist,” according to design psychologists that were consulted.  Manicured green lawns and brick or stone are present in all.

Uh Oh. What would they say about my parent’s house, (the house were I grew up)? My dad took off the fake shutters at least….and it does have industrial chic concrete window sills. The windows are true divided lites, by the way, and my folks hired a local artist to make some stained glass windows for either side of and above the front door…Its not so big, but it is brick veneer with a green lawn and small punched windows.

Not a Republican house though

There is no discussion in the Times article about solar orientation or energy efficiency. There is no mention of simplicity, elegance, or economy. Creativity does not make an appearance, (except in Newt’s whimsical topiary.)

Perhaps the candidates can learn a bit from Ice Cube.

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Timbersil decking

Timbersil Framing

Adolfo (Ron Tostenson Construction) was sanding the decking smooth before staining when I stopped by. The framing and the decking are all glass impregnated wood by TimberSIL and extremely fire and rot resistant. (more info here) Its looking good – much better than pressure treated from below, and the decking is nice too.

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I just returned from a field trip to Seattle, Washington.  We visited one of my favorite buildings of all time,   The Seattle Main Public Library by Rem Koolhas,  to see how it is holding up.  It is now 7 years old and still looks great. Very raw and utilitarian…but nicely detailed to be comfortable and functional too.  This building makes me realize that it is sometimes worth the effort  to stick to your guns and convince the client to do something really different.  There is nothing conventional about this building.

We also visited Ellie Sherman at the Whidbey Institute.

She lives in a tiny cabin – about 7’x8′.

It is very cozy inside. I wish I had a photo.  There is something really nice about bedrooms just barely big enough for a bed, some clothes, and some books.

The Sanctuary is another nice building at the Whidbey Institute:

Also, on Whidbey Island, we collected a feast of clams and mussels.

We had a good local guide who shared his secret mussel patch with us.

When we returned, I took a nap in my friend Jason’s tiny retreat on wheels, only slightly bigger than Ellie’s cabin, but it contains a bed, and table for two, and a kitchenette. (you can see it here in the background behind Jason and Rosalina)

And then we cooked clams in Tofty’s  yellow kitchen

John sips wine while Jody and Vina tend to the clam sauce

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My friend Carl Milsum just installed this simple and sturdy new aluminum entry roof to protect visitors at his front door.  It might look better without the diamond plate, but I think he got a special deal on this material.

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