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.
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.
In a recent gloomy and hand wringing report on Japan’s declining living standards and intractable economic stagnation, the New York Times’ Martin Fackler decries a unique solution to urban infill:
“The downsizing of Japan’s ambitions can be seen on the streets of Tokyo, where concrete “micro houses” have become popular among younger Japanese who cannot afford even the famously cramped housing of their parents, or lack the job security to take out a traditional multi-decade loan.
These matchbox-size homes stand on plots of land barely large enough to park a sport utility vehicle, yet have three stories of closet-size bedrooms, suitcase-size closets and a tiny kitchen that properly belongs on a submarine.”
While over at Inhabitat, a Japanese micro house is featured as a model of intelligent design:
“The Showa-cho House in Osaka Japan is an amazingly airy residence despite its miniscule 59 x 13-foot lot. Architect Fujiwara Muro made incredible use of the limited space available by building up and splitting the home in half with a staircase, which acts as both a transition space and delineates the private and public sides of the home without a wall. Plenty of daylight flows in, and a simplified modern interior streamlines the space, adding a tranquil feeling to a home dictated by a ten foot-wide interior dimension.”
Perfect Plank has long been a favorite material of mine. It’s a beautiful, versatile material for tables, stair treads, light shelves, bookshelves, countertops, column wraps and the like. It comes in alder, maple, plantation grown mahogany and even western red cedar for outdoor use.
Made to Last
Made from “finger jointing” and laminating off-cuts and wood from renewable sources, the lads at Perfect Plank offer a great value product. I love its heft; you can see and feel its thickness, up to a couple of inches. Because it’s not a veneer, dings and scratches can be sanded out and the surface refinished.
It’s a permanent, renewable, refinish-able, reusable and biodegradable material that will last for generations.
There are some “show-off” buildings that I love; the uplifting Bilbo is one such building, but all too often signature buildings that overreach can become a self-indulgent mess. In the world of prefabricated homes this is probably even truer as a decadent display will seem even more pretentious when repeated in multiples.
Witold Rybczynski’s succinct article in Slate makes the case for a little more restraint:
In Praise of the Anti-Icon
By Witold Rybczynski
“Painter Paul Klee once wrote that while painters could make wheels square, architects had to make them round. Not any more. In the past, public and institutional buildings were expected to convey a sense of solidity and order; today they can just as easily suggest collapse and disharmony. In his forthcoming book, Architecture of the Absurd, John Silber takes aim at architects such as Frank Gehry, Steven Holl, and Daniel Libeskind, who, in a desire to create iconic architecture, frequently make their wheels square.
Silber, the outspoken president of Boston University for 25 years, excoriates these architects—and, by implication, their clients—for disfiguring, as he puts it, what should be a practical art. His spirited, if sometimes perfunctory, essay raises an interesting question: if not architectural high jinks, then what?
The new addition to the Seattle Art Museum, which opened last summer, provides one answer: an anti-icon. Instead of architectural pyrotechnics, the designer, Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture, opted for what, at first glance, appears to be almost corporate blandness. Almost, but not quite. The dull stainless steel suits the often overcast Northwest light, and the sliding shutters that control light entering the galleries create changing patterns on the exterior wall. The upper floors of this loftlike building, currently leased as offices, can be converted into gallery space in the future, when the museum expands. This pragmatic approach gives the museum maximum flexibility, although at the price of somewhat uninspired interiors.”