Thursday, February 28, 2013

Inspiration for the PLUShouse, or how Laurie came to love her roof

It's always wonderful and exciting to get a new project. Then you think - where do I begin? What will be the inspiration for this particular project?

Inspiration has no logic, and can be pulled from a variety of resources. In architecture and design, I generally troll for inspiration from:
• The Site: relatively small at 6500 s.f., facing due south, with views of everything.
• The Client: extraordinarily bright, talented, interesting, and forward looking (a self-described geek). A musician, a pilot (both fixed wing and rotating), a cook and a dog owner. 
• The Inspiration: client, site, sun, and the act of listening.

The site is always instrumental in siting a house. Sun angles, views, exterior space, and topography need to be taken into account, along with the requisite building codes. But designing a house goes beyond these considerations. The question becomes - what will the inspiration be to make this project embody the spirit of the client, as well as the spirit of the site?   

Initially, two things inspired me about Laurie - she is a musician (something I can personally understand, being a musician myself), and that she is a pilot (no personal connection with this). These two interests were something I saw as unique to Laurie, and that could inform the design as well as the spirit of the house. I began by putting some thoughts and words on paper:

• Inspired by music - lyrical, sculptural
• Quality of light orchestrated over time  - winter to summer
• Choreography of views
• Spaces flow gracefully into one another
• Everything is considered - everything is crafted

These words and thoughts, and Laurie's interests, became a springboard for the design. The image of air currents, and the roof of the house as a wing (both fixed and rotating) became essential to the design, as did the practice and acoustics of music. 

The location of a concert piano was of primary importance. Practically, the piano would be located away from direct sun and glare. Logistically, space was needed not only for the piano, but for a clarinet and cello player, and a small audience during recitals.

I began by adding a 'salon' into the program. This salon did not add a room, but became a shared space with the living room (which will provide seating during performances), the library, (bookshelves will surround the salon on 3 sides), and a private, but open, reading area, referred to as the Turkish Lounge (Turkish lamps will be hung over this area). 

The northwest end of the house was an ideal location for the salon. The roof could be kicked up to admit high north light, and protected light could come in from high windows facing east. The west wall of the salon would have no windows, but the expansive west and south views of the S.F.Bay and Bridges would be visible through the living and dining rooms. 

Acoustics is a critical component in a space for music. Although acoustics is not an exact science (many concert halls have been redesigned to correct poor acoustics, including Avery Fisher Hall, Carnegie Hall, and Davies Hall, among others), a simple rule is that surfaces should not be parallel to each other, and materials should be varied. 

In considering the roof, an airplane wing image blew in, and it's opportunity to slowly rotate and create differing roof planes conducive to soft acoustics. Asymmetricaly above the salon, the roof rises towards the north at a 3:12 complex slope (the roof slopes in two directions); the main roof of the house slopes at a consistent 1:12 upslope towards the south view; and a wedge of roof slopes 1.5:12 towards the west view. The ceiling will be finished in 4'x10' wood panels, which will extend to the underside of the deep eaves (roof overhangs). The eaves will be convex is shape, and built much like the wing of an airplane is built. 

As Laurie declares: "I never thought I could love a roof."

Lindy Small

Monday, February 25, 2013

It's not just a grassy plot any longer

The very first evidence that a house is happening is two platforms that went up last week, where the floor will be in the kitchen and the master bedroom. Also a cool place to have a picnic lunch . . . or to stargaze on a clear night.

If you turn the other direction, you can see the view from the platforms, west, and south.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Inspiration, or How to Begin

I recently was asked to give a lecture at the AIA (American Institute of Architects), and the topic was "What Inspires You." I thought this was a very provocative topic, as inspiration comes from what we see, experience, and learn - from travel, literature, environment, color, landscape, and just everyday life. But choosing and organizing inspirational images for a lecture was a challenge.

I'm a cyclist, and can spend many hours at a time on my bike, mostly alone. I rarely listen to music while I ride, as I like silence (and like to hear cars approaching from behind). Instead, I think (and occasionally not think) while riding my bike. So, a perfect opportunity to think about how to organize a lecture on inspiration.

Out there on the road you need to be aware of the big picture as well as the immediate picture - your eyes scan the road ahead, and check the road directly in front of you in a constant and intuitive manner. It becomes a model of balance, where the big picture and the details are equally important. Like architecture. While riding and thinking and looking around, I realized that over the years I had been pinning images of what inspires me to the walls of my office: a photograph of a mule train on a mountain pass, postcards I had collected from museums, a billboard advertisement for an exhibit of Samuel Beckett, a Le Corbusier poster from 1987, a map of the world, an incongruous juxtaposition of 2 photos I had taken. I realized that I had been collecting and pinning these images to the walls of my office over many years, and the only common thread was that they moved me in some way - a sense of balance, composition, light, color, texture, scale, complexity. It just came down to intuition. 

And so, the lecture I gave at the AIA discussed basics of form, light, movement, pattern, scale, complexity, transparency, and sustainability, among others.  It began with the act of looking, and ended with the intangible of intuition. 

next blog topic:
Inspiration for the PLUShouse.

Lindy Small

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


An architect's work is very solitary, but our knowledge should be expansive. We speak the abstract language of architecture, but we also have to understand the work of the consultants who help make the building perform - the builder, the structural, civil, and mechanical engineers, the water systems expert, and the landscape architect. These consultants play a critical role in the design and construction of a project, and together with the client and architect, become a part of the Team. Although our project is a small, 2,000 s.f. house, each team member will play a critical role in the vision of our client.

Vision. It's a loaded word. The state of seeing, foresight, dreams, desires, etc. Many of these words refer to the future, to looking forward. And this is really what residential architecture can be about - how do you live now, how do you project yourself living in 5, 10, 40 years? How do you design a house which is perfect to live in now, and will be perfect to live in 40 years later? This can a long discussion, which eventually will be expanded upon. For now, I'll focus on one aspect of the client's vision - sustainability.

The client's foremost parameter for her new house is that it will exceed zero net energy - hence referred to as the PLUShouse (discussion of acronym at a later post). The house will have photovoltaic panels for power, rainwater and storm water collection systems, gray water reuse, and hydronic heat. Water storage tanks will be either buried on the site or located in the garage. Pumps will be remote from the house for noise reduction, as the client is a musician and acoustics is an important part of the design. The landscape will be modernist in design, drought resistant and subtle. The structure of the building is complex (but not complicated), and the construction will be a mechanical lock, where there is an interlocking relationship between form, detailing, and structure.

Building a team is of great importance, and in choosing consultants to become part of the team we looked for people whose work we admire, but also for people passionate about our vision of sustainability. And we found the perfect team PLUS: Shades of Green (landscape architect), Drew Maran (builder), Peter Yu, (structural engineer) Josiah Cain, (Design Ecology -water systems), and David Knight, (Monterey Energy Group -mechanical engineer).

Go Team!

Lindy Small

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Life is Too Short, or How I Hired A Builder

Building your own house is a powerful thing. You get to make it just the way you want, and if the bathroom is too small to fit in that beautiful tub you found online, all you do is ask your architect, "Why don't we just make the bathroom bigger?" Which you can't do when you remodel or renovate. I've done plenty of both, and now for the first time ever, I'm looking at plans that are completely fungible. It comes with its own set of constraints, of course (the size of the lot, and the buildable square footage on that lot, what's practical and what's not), but in general, building a house from scratch is a very liberating experience.

I began this project with a 1-page wishlist of all those things I thought I couldn't live without (more on that later). In particular, I was determined to build it myself, to act as my own general contractor, which in Oakland CA is legal without a contractor's license. I wanted a single-story dwelling with 2 bedrooms and 3 full baths, rainwater catchment, wood floors, gray water, 100%+ solar, hot-water roof pre-heat, hydronic heat, and all of my favorite kitchen appliances. That meant I needed to know about and fundamentally understand all the latest technology about all those things, how they work together, and then I needed to be able to find reputable subcontractors who can build those interconnected systems.

For example, my first drawing of the schematic of the plumbing system, incorporating a rainwater system, with holding tanks, filtration, and pumping, plus a city system for potable water (believe it or not, rainwater isn't potable in Alameda County!), plus a gray water holding system, and another plumbing system for the hydronic-heat floors, was the most complicated mechanical system in my house. I did not want to mess this up, or have to build it more than once.

I learn quickly, and well. And I am not afraid to tackle big projects. But as I began to study, almost immediately I realized that my best learning was going to come from experts in conservation, green building, and resource management. And I could spend a year learning about systems, and then another year finding the right people to build them for me, or . . . or I could hire an expert, who would point me toward other experts.

So I consulted with my FA (Fabulous Architect, or Favorite Architect, or Famous Architect, whichever suits) and after some chatting, I did the smart thing: I decided to hire a builder to construct the "shell." That's the house itself, minus any interior finishes. It can't be lived in, but it doesn't leak, and it contains all the energy and mechanical subsystems.

Introducing Drew Maran, of Drew Maran Construction. Besides being very well-organized and techie, which I greatly admire, Drew comes with a wonderful recommendation: he has built a house with Lindy before, and they still like each other. More than that, Drew has been building eco-friendly houses since way before that was fashionable. Between Lindy and Drew, I have managed to accumulate in a mere 4 weeks the best and brightest consultants on the west coast for energy, mechanical, structural, landscape, and water resource design.

We are meeting for the first time on Monday.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Introduction

A sweet little lot facing due south, with views of everything in every direction - S.F. Bay to the east, south, and west, with views of the Golden Gate, Bay, and Dunbarton Bridges, and mountain views to to the north of the Grizzly Peak skyline. Add to that a wonderful client who wants a size-appropriate, modernist house that exceeds zero net energy. How good can that get? It gets better - the client hired me to design the house.

This blog will chronicle the PLUS house from the perspectives of the client and the architect. It will be about the design and building of the house, and also about intangibles associated with the project - inspirations, ideas, working relationships etc. As the project continues, we hope the project team (builder, landscape architect, engineer, lighting designer, etc.) will contribute their thoughts and ideas as well. 

Lindy Small

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Building a perfect house

After 3 years, I closed on the perfect lot the Monday after Thanksgiving. Almost immediately I hired an architect, which was a journey in itself, and fortunately, I found the perfect person (Lindy Small) to build my perfect house. This morning she said, "We should start a blog about building this house," and so we have.

What's the PLUS mean? We started out thinking this house would have a zero carbon footprint -- 100% solar, graywater and rainwater systems, hydronic floors with solar pre-heated water, plus green building materials and methods. But then we decided to make the house actually less than zero, or more than zero, however you want to think of it. It actually is a "plus" for the local environment. Then it became the "Pretty Little Ultra Sustainable" house, which is still changing. One of these days we'll find the perfect terminology for the acronym.