Wednesday, December 3, 2014


There is a certain type of magic that occurs when a building rises out of the earth. After the many months, and oftentimes years, of work put into designing a building, it is mesmerizing to see that building materialize right before your eyes. Although the process is more or less the same for each building (movement of dirt; forming and pouring foundations; framing; roofing; installation of windows and doors; siding; etc.), seeing the same thing for the first time, the tenth time or even for the hundredth time, is always a bit magical. Like repeatedly listening to the same symphony.
A symphony of sorts - Laurie laying out a template of her piano to locate electric floor outlets before the concrete pour
What is most stunning is how easy it seems. But it isn’t, of course.

What we do as architects is not magic, but perhaps it is the strong belief in images and answers that is most captivating - the attraction of finding just the right solution to a problem where there is no correct answer. I have awoken in the middle of the night, perplexed by a discrepancy of 2” between the construction documents and the field conditions of the project under construction. Then figured out how to turn that 2” discrepancy in order to benefit the project. Or, while swimming laps in the early morning when it is still dark, the perfect solution to a small detail that has been needling me pops into my mind, just like magic.

Finding a solution to a problem is always rewarding. But seeing a solution materialize, in real time and space, is magical.
pouring the concrete slab over the radiant tubing
framing begins on top of finished slab

location of ramp leading from entry to public spaces 

top of future ramp terminating at public spaces (lower left)

Friday, September 19, 2014


Designing a house is a process, a series of actions and steps taken to achieve an end. There is a finite set of factors involved in designing a house, but as a building progresses from concept to construction, there remains the opportunity for re-evaluation and change.

The PLUShouse is under construction. The earth has been excavated and graded, foundations have been poured, and 6” of drain rock have been spread in the interior of the foundation. Electric and plumbing lines have been installed over the drain rock, and orange plastic tubing for radiant floor heat has been layed down. A 4” concrete slab has been poured over this matrix, and the concrete, which will be the finished floor, will be the exact color of the earth the house is connected to. Control joints, or grooves, have been cut into the concrete floor for the purpose of controlling where cracks will occur (concrete will crack). The control joints are organized not in an expected grid pattern, but are an array of radiating lines.

Laurie (client) driving excavator
Lindy (architect) driving excavator

under slab radiant heat lines
concrete slab control joints
As the foundation and concrete work are complete, we begin the framing stage of construction. The house will be primarily wood framed, although there are quite a few structural steel beams (horizontal members) and posts (vertical members) supporting the house. One 3”x3” steel post will be exposed inside the house, the remainder of the steel members will be installed in the ceiling plane and the walls, and not be visible.

As the PLUShouse is rising out of the earth, all is humming along smoothly under the supervision of Mark and Robert of Drew Maran Construction. The foundation walls are not a fraction off from the dimensions shown on the architecture drawings - we have been measuring the accuracy of the foundation during site visits, as Edgar, of Adorno Concrete, grins with surety that the walls are right on the mark.

Mark measuring while Laurie observes
But the house is not set in stone, and in the course of construction there is a deepening awareness of the project. The architect (myself) and the owner (Laurie) have not stopped thinking. New ideas continue to be presented by both parties, research is done, technical data is evaluated, and things change. And change is good.

Laurie - client

Lindy Small - architect

Currently we are re-evaluating the doors, both interior and exterior. The exterior door system is always a bit tricky, as aesthetics, function, viability, and project-specific requirements are all things to consider. The front entry of the PLUShouse is a 13’ wide x 10’ high glass system, with an off-centered 10’ high door flanked by a window on each side.

north elevation with glass entry system

Sounds straight forward, until you begin thinking a bit: what type of door is possible, what is the glazing and transparency of the system, the material, color, width of the door and window frames, type of locking system? All these are decisions we are currently re-evaluating. We are not changing the overall design of the entry (13’ wide x 10’ high), but are evaluating the elements that make up this system.

 Originally, the entry door was a 3’ x 10’ hinged aluminum door. Not wanting wide frames which are standard on a door this size, we identified a Swiss company who could make very narrow door and window frames. As this company manufactures pivot and sliding doors (not hinged doors) – a pivot front door usurped the originally designed hinged door, igniting new research on the entry system. Our revised set of parameters for the entry became: pivot door, narrow door and window frames, glass which can be etched (Laurie is designing an etched pattern for the entry system), and a locking system which can be electronically controlled by a cell phone, using the Goji system. 

And so research began to find a door manufacturer who could satisfy this new set of criteria. Long story short, the glass used by the Swiss manufacturer we identified is structural, so cannot be etched, we were not impressed with the steel welds of an Arizona company who satisfied all criteria, and a California manufacturer could not install an electronic lock. We were on a mission, and eventually found 2 companies who could satisfy all our requirements - a local company and a New Zealand company. The PLUShouse is a 100% sustainable house, employing as many local services and products as possible. An easy decision followed - IronGrain in Oakland will be manufacturing the entry system to meet all our specifications.

A pivot door is very different from a swing door, most notably in that you can determine where the point of pivot will occur. Pivot doors swing in and out simultaneously, and the point of pivot is a critical location - it can be anywhere from at the door jamb (edge of door) to the center of the door. So, if you want a 36” clear door opening, the door can be anywhere from 36”-72” wide.

As the width of the door was re-evaluated, the relationship of door to adjacent windows was re-considered. This affects the location of the door to the interior space it opens on to. Which in turn affects how the etched glass pattern of an oak tree, fabricated by Lenahan Glass in Oakland, will span the 13’ x 10’ system, which affects where the pivot point will be in relation to the etched design. (It’s beginning to sound like the old lady who swallowed a fly……)

By stretching and compressing the tree design a bit, and manipulating the door size and pivot point location, the design has settled. The pivot point will be centered on the tree trunk, the proportion of door to windows is balanced, and the door will open into the house exactly where it should. It is a process where nothing is in isolation.

Along our journey to find the perfect entry door system, we became hooked on pivot doors, and Laurie decided to use glass pivot doors for the interior doors as well as the entry door. The interior doors will be frameless glass, with a single 3" wide x 8' high wood bar on the leading edge of the door. Our evaluation continues with what type of pivot system and hardware to install, what type of glass to use, and how best to fabricate and apply the wood edge to the tempered glass door.

interior pivot door studies
A house or building can be designed, approved by a client, and then built without further changes. But things change over time, new experiences occur, new products come to market, new thoughts and ideas surface, an image is seen, a phrase is read in a book. 

There is always a new problem to solve, both small and large, and nothing is insignificant. Think clearly, pay attention. This is process.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A look back, or How far we've come

When you're standing on a floor in a house somewhere, you don't really think about all the stuff underneath. To me, the word "house" describes the structure that encloses the interior space. But often that's the least significant part of it.

At least for the house on Norfolk, there is a whole lot of house under the surface. Since the floors for half the house are slab-on-grade, all the infrastructure has to be assembled and constructed before that final slab of the finished floor is poured. Only then do you frame the house and put a roof on it. This house doesn't have all that much framing because a big percentage of the exterior walls are glass, and a big part of the interior space is open. So there is a huge amount of work that must be done before the "house" -- the structure that rises above the ground -- starts to appear.

Last Friday (July 18) was The First Pour of concrete, and yesterday (July 21) the Adorno crew began stripping the forms. What emerged is just the beginnings of what will divide the interior space from the outside, but more importantly it is the first step in that portion of the infrastructure under the house. Here are pictures in sequence of several parts of the house where big changes have taken place over the past few weeks.

Remember this? These pictures were taken after the retaining wall close to the south property line was finished and backfilled.
June 13

June 17 -- Me standing at the future kitchen island

Then we dug it all up!

The Salon (the north retaining wall)

June 19

July 2

July 11

July 17 (day before The First Pour)

July 18 (The First Pour)

July 21

The Dining Room (the south wall)

June 23

July 11

July 17

July 18 (The First Pour)

July 21

The Kitchen & Master Bedroom stem walls

June 25

June 27

July 8

July 11

July 21

The Garage

June 27

July 1

July 8

July 15

July 18 (The First Pour)

July 21