Stillwater Blog

Contemporary Architecture: Constraints Are Your Friend

Frank Lloyd Wright once said “constraints are your friend” and although one would think that limitations of creative thinking would be counterintuitive in the design world, it actually makes a lot of sense. Constraints define the character of the solution.
Besides the obvious constraints of topography, sun, wind, budget, etc., there are also constraints imposed by the properties of materials and systems; it’s from all of these constraints one can tease out meaningful solutions that are not arbitrary or faddish but are a thoughtfully considered response.
At Stilllwater Dwellings, modular construction is integral to the aesthetic language we have developed without dominating or overpowering it. For instance, the structural expression of the roof beams at the module ”marriage lines” create a secondary scale that define individual spaces within a larger room, giving a human scale to balance the overall dimensions.
In the Living Hall, the kitchen, dining, and sitting areas are given identity by the structural expression of the exposed wood beams which are regulated by modular dimensions.

The Forerunner of Prefabricated Semi-Custom Homes

I have always loved Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonion homes, but I hadn’t thought about them for quite some time. Recently, I noticed the influence on our Stillwater designs; see the first elevation below. Maybe the Usonion home would have been more successful if it had been prefabricated?
“He called his modest house “Usonian,” after the United States. It was a single story built on a monolithic concrete slab and joined to a carport and not a garage. Wright believed that it could be replicated all across the country.
His main desire, which no contemporary architects pay any attention to whatever, is shelter for ordinary people…he got it down at one point in 1940 to $5000 per house for a family with children and a kitchen and gardens…and openness and a real milieu in which it was a highly civilized way to live. He thought about it all the time; he took commissions from the poor as well as from the rich, something unheard of in 1995, 1996… We’re not like that anymore and this was very important in any appraisal of what his work represents because he hasn’t had the following that he should have had in respect to shelter.”
—Brendan Gill, Writer
“What would be really sensible in this matter of the modest dwelling for our time and place? Let’s see how far the Herbert Jacobs house at Madison, Wisconsin, is a sensible house. This house for a young journalist, his wife, and small daughter, is now under roof. Cost: Fifty-five hundred dollars, including architect’s fee of four hundred and fifty. Contract let to P. B. Grove.
To give the small Jacobs family the benefit of the advantages of the era in which they live, many simplifications must take place. Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs must themselves see life in somewhat simplified terms. What are essentials in their case, a typical case? It is not only necessary to get rid of all unnecessary complications in construction, necessary to use work in the mill to good advantage, necessary to eliminate so far as possible, field labor which is always expensive: it is necessary to consolidate and simplify the three appurtenance systems—heating, lighting, and sanitation. At least this must be our economy if we are to achieve the sense of spaciousness and vista we desire in order to liberate the people living in the house. And it would be ideal to complete the building in one operation as it goes along. Inside and outside should be complete in one operation. The house finished inside as it is completed outside. There should be no complicated roofs.”
From An Autobiography, by Frank Lloyd Wright

Playa Prefab

I love these Buckminster Fuller-inspired prefabricated geodesic domes; their simplicity is cool and their detail and execution shows a well-designed, clean solution.
Originally designed as more humane temporary shelter for displaced people in emergency situations, Icosa Pods were first tested at Burning Man. Gorgeous to behold and out of this world.
The structures, from Folded Homes, are basic prefab huts made of plastic pieces that snap together like an Erector set. Easy to build with no need for special tools or skills, the Pods are extremely strong and yet very lightweight.

Middle Class Modern

A recent New York Times piece on Mies van der Rohe’s Lafayette Park complex in Detroit belies the notion that the ‘average homeowner’ simply doesn’t like modernism. In fact, there’s nothing simple about it. Taste in housing is influenced by many factors including:
•          Sentiment; where you grew up, and the architectural roots of the family home
•          Professional aspirations, aka ‘keeping up with the Jones’
•          Need, as with a large, perhaps extended family
•          Or just proximity. You might not know a craftsman from a Chrysler, but you want to live near the #5 bus line.
“We wanted to hear how residents — especially people with long-term, intimate knowledge of living with Mies — think about this unique modernist environment and how they confront and adapt it to meet their needs. During our research, we were struck by the casual attitude that many residents have toward the architecture. Then again, Detroit has an abundance of beautiful housing options: one can live in a huge Victorian mansion, a beautiful arts and crafts house or a cavernous loft-conversion space in a former factory. Living in a townhouse built by a renowned architect isn’t as noteworthy as one might think. At the same time, such nonchalance is a mark of success: the homes are great because they work, not because they come affixed with a famous name.”

More Home, Less House

So true, and a maxim that has much relevance today with issues of affordability, sustainability and the idea of building for real people, not the real-estate inflation game.
It’s beyond measure how many times I’ve heard people say “…we don’t use half our house”, and the reason they built a bigger home than they needed was for “resale” considerations. Developers and Real Estate Agents have been touting the “must maximize the property” gospel for years as if it was some golden rule. Thing is, they maximized quantity not quality. This is just another urban myth, and with the recent recession, more and more people now realize that big houses are just a waste. The self-perpetuating myth has been busted.
The turnaround probably started when Susan Susanka published The Not So Big House, a revolutionary book that struck a cord with those who were leaning ahead of the curve. A classic, and worth exploring:

How to Spend $1200/sf on Your New Home, Without Even Trying

During two decades working in the high-end residential market designing homes for the very wealthy, it was interesting to study how the money gets spent; what is it that pushes costs as high as $1200/sf? Granted, the results can be stunning, particularly if you’re into pigmented plaster walls, leather tile floors, gold leaf ceilings and cast glass soaking tubs.
The 80:20 Rule Revisited
When we started Stillwater Dwellings, our objective was design for the upper-middle market with the goal of producing homes built to 80% of the highest quality level at just 20% of the cost. We did this by removing unnecessary details and add-ons that inflate prices but create no real long-term value. This 80:20 rule is the Pareto Principle, which is widely used to describe the distribution of cause and effect.
Actually there are areas of design that usually aren’t subject to the Pareto Principle. The rules of good proportion, scale, space and diagram all remain, within bounds, unaffected by the materials that define them.

Britain’s Town Planners Promote More Square Footage

I was a little surprised to come across this urban planning article in The Independent, as most of the talk in the USA is about houses needing to get smaller, not bigger:
“Architects Beginning to Think Big
Britain’s homes have long had the smallest rooms in Europe, now a new generation of town planners and architects is urging us to rethink the way we use our shrinking urban space. Oliver Bennett reports.
Friday, 15 October 2010
Rabbit hutch Britain: Densely packed terraced homes in Blackburn, as elsewhere in the north of England, often date from as far back as the Industrial Revolution.
“In most things we welcome miniaturisation: computers, phones, cars. But not for our homes. Sadly, however, this is the situation that the British house-buying public faces. Homes in Britain have the smallest rooms in Western Europe. The average floor space is almost a quarter smaller than in Denmark – Western Europe’s most spacious country – and we are becoming accustomed to living cheek by jowl in cramped, poky quarters.
It’s not an impressive achievement, thinks Rebecca Roberts-Hughes, policy officer for the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba), She believes it’s time for British volume builders to start thinking big.”
Read the entire article here:
http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/house-and-home/property/architects-beginning-to-think-big-2106949.html
Photo credit, Getty Images

Contemporary Is Not An Option

Planned communities like Celebration, Florida have proved well-planned towns designed to higher densities – enabling walk-able neighborhoods and public spaces – are very well received and successful. As Witold Rybczynski notes on Slate, 10 years after Disney’s town was completed, the planning works well; and the residential architecture is not bad, just a bit bland.
Disney’s Controversial Town, a Decade On
By Witold Rybczynski
“To avoid cookie-cutter uniformity, Disney gave builders the choice of several architectural styles such as Colonial Revival, Victorian, and Craftsman. “Modern,” given the preferences of American home buyers, was not an option. Yet an impression of sameness persists, for the houses share the same contemporary building materials and details. All too often they also share a bland, middle-of-the-road civility. This is understandable, since builders can’t afford to antagonize buyers, but too much politeness can be a bore. The happy exceptions are the bumptious “Mediterranean” houses that occur here and there. They exhibit a good-natured Floridian vulgarity that is refreshing among all the good taste.”

Roof Overhangs

I love roof overhangs on so many levels. On the symbolic level they convey a sense of protection and security as they shield us from the elements. They’re welcoming, like open arms saying, “…hello, here is the entry, come inside”.
On a purely functional level they are great climate modifiers, keeping the walls dry at critical joints, and are particularly effective at shading summer sun.
As a crusty waterproofing consultant once told me “I would be out of business if every building had generous roof overhangs; a poorly designed or constructed detail will not leak a bit if it doesn’t get wet”.  At Stillwater we have embraced generous roof overhangs and always try and employ them, particularly over windows.

When Joy met Frank… the SQUARE by Sp0re

It’s often really hard to find the right products or group of products, but sometimes it’s a snap, and at Stillwater nothing snapped faster than the Sp0re doorbell. I immediately knew it was right; it just hit me in the gut. But I only recently I figured out why.
It has two emotions, seemingly polar opposites that work surprisingly well together. A delightful joy is married to a frank minimalism resulting in a synergy that feels so “meant to be”.
Long neglected as an afterthought, designers at Sp0re have transformed the lowly doorbell button to a higher and more stylish place in the entry procession. The rubbery, colored resin button is backlit by LEDs and centered in a machined aluminum faceplate with a beveled interior edge. There are a variety of vibrant button colors, each having a deep iridescent glow that is just so… cool.
Choosing the doorbell color can be a big decision for some of our clients: she wants green; but he needs orange… good thing we’ve already designed the rest of the house!

Why Stillwater?

I often get asked how we came up with the name “Stillwater”.
First, we new we wanted a name that dissociated itself with architectural service since for our clients, most of the design has already been completed. People come to us for a home, not a long, drawn out process, so naming the company after ourselves, as is the typical architectural convention, was a non-starter.
On the surface, we build affordable prefab housing; just beneath lies a wealth of detailed knowledge and a full-spectrum, sophisticated housing system that might not be apparent at first.
Channeling this thought in a brainstorming session with Bart and Brad, I mentioned a favorite proverb of mine, “The still water runs deep”. Bart, an avid trout fisherman, agreed that he’d always loved the term “still water” because it’s the best place to cast a fly and it sounds sweet.
That was it, done.
Photo credit:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/joshcon/4450007889/in/photostream/
Joshua Conley

The cost-per-square-foot game

Costs “per/sf” are like the 10-day weather forecast: they exist because there is a huge demand for them and the fact that they are usually woefully inaccurate is hardly ever factored. To use a favorite Bushism, there’s a lot of misunderestimating going on.
When comparing costs per square foot it is critical to make sure you are using an apples-to-apples comparison. On the top of the equation ask yourself what costs are included. Does it include landscape, hardscape, permit fees, architect and engineering fees, cost of money, sales tax and contingency?
On the bottom of the equation, what exactly, is the area measured? Just livable spaces, or are the garage, mechanical, storage, covered areas, deck and patio areas also included?  Manipulate these numbers for any project and you can easily have a 100% swing.
And that’s not accounting for the human factor; sometimes the most telling metric would be the delta nose length, measured before and after some people spout out these numbers.

Let the Sun Shine

What do California, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania have in common? Homeowners who live there, and who love the idea of solar power but can’t afford the upfront costs, have a terrific alternative. Innovative California company SunRun offers residential solar power systems for as low as $0. As in zero, nothing down; simply a monthly payment for your solar electricity.
It’s an intriguing business model that takes the complexity and expense out of alternate energy while weaning us off our dependency on fossil fuels.
“SunRun, the nation’s leading home solar company, has received a 2010 Green Power Leadership Award from the Department of Energy (DOE) for its clean and affordable solar power service.”
We’re not the only ones who are excited about it.

Carbon Tax Debate Heats Up

It was good to hear Dan Charles of NPR interview Bjorn Lomborg, a former global warming skeptic, as they discussed what few people and fewer politicians want to talk about: a carbon tax.
It seems to me a tax system that encouraged people to work hard by mainly lowering income tax and encouraged people to use less fossil fuel by taxing carbon, would be a better way to go. To achieve a greater independence from fossil fuels it’s most effective to have both carrots and sticks. The good thing about a carbon tax is it would be effective, transparent, and not nearly as susceptible to manipulation and gaming as can be the case with incentives. If such a tax caused the average new home size to drop by 300sf, would that be such a bad thing? Bjorn Lomborg, the controversial Danish economist, has pushed his way back into the global warming debate with a book that proposes “smart solutions” to climate change. Those promised solutions rely heavily on R&D aimed at making clean energy cheap, rather than attempts to shut down dirty energy sources. Lomborg says his views haven’t changed, but more people are willing to listen to him because international negotiations on limiting greenhouse emissions have accomplished so little. Dan Charles

Carbon-Neutral, Sustainable Housing Community Still Thrives in London

If you haven’t already read about the BEDZED project on the outskirts of London, it’s worth a look. A trendsetter at the time, its still is one of the go-to examples of zero energy sustainable housing of significant scale. Eye catching as it is, the front facades may well be too uniform and anonymous for American urbanites not accustomed to the row house so ubiquitous in the “suburbs” of the United Kingdom. Kate Andrews of Inhabitat explores further:
BEDZED: Beddington Zero Energy Development in London
“The Beddington Zero Energy Development (BEDZED) may not be new news, but is a fabulous example of innovative, zero-energy, sustainable housing on a multi-unit scale. The residential and workspace development in the London borough of Sutton is a carbon-neutral community with plentiful green spaces, recycling facilities, water saving features, and a legally binding green transport plan. It’s the whole kit-and-caboodle of sustainable living, and has been a flourishing green community since its conception in 2002.”

Taxidermy, Cold Beer and Flat Screen TV

I don’t enter the arena of whether man caves are good, bad or ugly. But hey, if it gets that humongous TV out of the living room, everybody’s a winner. Via Man of the House:

 

A Man’s Sanctuary – Man Caves
“You may cut the grass, fix a leaking faucet and have the latest tools in your garage but judging from your bedroom décor, you may be taken as a dainty young girl.
Are your bedroom walls covered in various shades of fuchsia?  Is your bed covered with countless throw pillows that nearly suffocate you when you sleep?  Does your living room resemble more of a playground than a relaxing oasis?  If so, building a man cave may be just the escape you are looking for. Jason Cameron, a licensed general contractor and host of DIY Network’s Man Caves may be the best person to fix this problem and turn your flowery abode into a manly haven.
Man Caves may sound like a show for the modern-day cave man, but in reality it’s a TV series that provides men, especially fathers, with an exclusive place to be at peace and completely escape from the regular chaos at home. This show picks a few lucky men out of a pool of applicants and rocks their world by building the ultimate man cave fully equipped with flat screens and sports memorabilia.”
Kasie Baltes is the Associate Editor for ManoftheHouse.com.

Livable Cities are Bike-Friendly

The New York Times T Magazine design section recently showcased the stylish Linus bicycle:
And a few days later the BBC picked up the trend of America’s increased interest in bicycles as transportation, not merely recreation:
“America is known for its enduring love affair with the automobile. But in the last few years cities across the US have reported a surge in bicycle use, as people search for greener, healthier – and cheaper – transport options.”
However:
“…even the most bike-friendly US cities have years to go before catching European cities such as Copenhagen, where an estimated 30% of residents commute to work or school on a bicycle.
But Copenhagen cyclists have benefited from decades of pro-bike planning decisions, while US urban planners must overcome a century of energy politics and urban policy designed to promote vehicle use.”
Read the entire story over on BBC online
Cycle commuting in the US
Portland, Oregon – 5.96%
Minneapolis – 4.27%
Seattle – 2.94%
Sacramento – 2.72%
San Francisco – 2.72%
Washington, DC – 2.33%
Oakland – 2.15%
Tucson – 2.04%
Albuquerque – 1.75%
US – 0.55%
Source: US Census Bureau

Housing Design Now: A Small Matter

Sarah Susanka is rather ironic, a bestselling author and ahead of her time. And now, every developer and real estate agent who would dismiss her “Not So Small” approach as a “niche” are suddenly all over her maxim. Her latest book on residential architecture is reviewed in the Atlantic City Weekly.
Downsizing the McMansion
Book Review: ‘More Not So Big Solutions for Your Home’
By Sarah Susanka
“Bigness, that staple of American values and culture, is, in the words of Heidi Klum, “Out.” (Note the capital “O.”) Mega, ultra, super, jumbo stuff has generally declined in popularity over this recent recession, first motivated by cost-cutting and, later, by the realization that life smells just as sweet (or even sweeter) without all the “extra” our bodies and budgets are perfectly capable of doing without.
In early 2009, the story broke that American homes were trending down in size for the first year in many. Authorities from the National Association of Home Builders, the American Institute of Architects and even groups of real estate professionals started noticing homeowners at all income levels beginning to express a preference for smaller, better-built homes — some even before the recession. And they project that the trend will continue when the recession is just a memory.
Enter Sarah Susanka, an architect and advocate of homes that are smaller, practically and efficiently designed, yet still beautiful and comfortable. With her first book a decade back, “The Not So Big House,” Susanka likely felt like the lone voice of reason crying out against excessively large homes in the wilderness of rapidly multiplying McMansions that was the American new-home market at the time.”