Individual Landmarks – preservation one at a time

In Boulder, like many other cities, there are a number of historic districts designed to save the architecture of individual buildings but also the overall look and feel of a neighborhood.  In addition to this kind of district-based preservation, there are programs to save individual buildings where the immediate neighborhood may not justify a district designation or there is just too much homeowner resistance to the idea.  In Boulder, the program to preserve single buildings is called Individual Landmark Designation and the criteria are in line with many other such programs across the nation.

Volsky house, by Charles Haertling, in LIFE magazine

What is abundantly clear as espoused in almost every public meeting, is why in the world would anyone want to have their building designated in that way and held to the close scrutiny for any changes in the future.  I would like to describe some of the benefits of this kind of individual landmark designation:

  1. Tax Credits.  There are state tax credits available for approved renovations to designated properties.  These credits can be applied for work to rehab the exterior siding, roofing, windows, and other exterior details.  Maybe most applicable however, is that these credits can be gained for upgrading interior systems as well – electrical, heating, cooling, etc.
  2. Commercial tax credits.  These are similar as those described above, but are federal tax credits and are only available for commercial properties.  However, residential rental properties are eligible.  As Boulder moves forward with its SmartRegs ordinance requiring the upgrading of energy systems for residential rental units, these kinds of tax credits may apply and greatly offset some of the costs of complying.
  3. Sales Tax Credits.  Local sales taxes for building materials can be waived if the materials represent at least 30% of the value of the materials are for the building’s exterior.
  4. State Grants.  If sponsored by a local municipality, some renovation costs may be paid for from a grant fund from the Colorado State Historical fund.  The Boulder Landmarks Board reviews and often approves this type of request as a benefit to building owners as an incentive for preservation.
  5. Regulatory relief.  As Boulder has layered more restrictive requirements on the development of properties in the city, the potential of this aspect of preservation has become more important.  Anyone owning an individually landmarked building can petition the Landmarks Board to approve their proposed changes even though some of the new work may be in violation of the Solar Shadow ordinance, zoning requirements, the new Compatible Development regulations like bulk planes, and even some aspects of the International Building Code.
Brenton house, aka Mushroom house, by Charles Haertling

And the negatives of individual landmark designation:

  1. Alterations.  If your building is individually landmarked, then any changes you might like to make to the building will have to be reviewed by either the Historic Preservation staff or the Landmarks Board.  This is not as painful or fear-inducing as it might appear at first.  Most all changes can be reviewed and approved with a simple sit down meeting with staff and the Design Review Committee of the Landmarks Board.  These are casual meetings held every Wednesday where the homeowner, staff and committee members talk over the project, discuss the merits and make suggestions, and often approve the changes right away.  Major changes, like partial demolitions and major additions, take longer to work through and the committee and staff can usually provide advice to make the project better while still preserving the building and meeting the desires of the homeowner.
  2. Demolition.  An individually landmarked building can not be demolished unless proven unsafe for use and/or habitation.  This may limit some future speculator’s designs on your property, but did you really want your legacy in the neighborhood to be new McMansion down the street.
  3. Costs.  Unlike so many taxes and fees, the costs for applying for individual landmark designation is crazy cheap – $25 bucks.
Dammann house, by Charles Haertling

So, if you love your house, if you don’t plan on demolishing it, it might be eligible for designation.  And this is not a program for only those grand old Victorian houses, but for anything that has some architectural or historical significance, including mid-century modernist buildings and the odd, quirky structures that give Boulder its architectural character.  What is missing from Boulder’s list of individually designated buildings are those wonderful, sometimes odd, buildings and houses designed in the 1950’s and 60’s when Boulder came into its own as a place of scientific excellence, environmental consciousness and progressive ideals.  Those buildings, designed by Charles Haertling, James Hunter, Hobie Wagner, Jacques Hampton and others reflect not so much a specific style copped from the East Coast, but the individual desires of their clients and the liberating topography of the West.  These buildings, beyond their architectural brillance, represent the best of what Boulder is and still strives to be.  And we should honor these buildings and their spirit by preserving their essence and ensuring that our kids will come to know Boulder by these buildings and not the newly minted McMansions of generic neighborhoods.

Boulder Eye Clinic, by Charles Haertling

Making models

I often find myself spending entirely too much time making physical models of the designs I am working on.  Not that this is time wasted, but in the professional world, you can not possibly charge enough or financially justify the making of physical models unless you employ shamelessly low-paid interns to do the work.  And that would mistake the product for the process.

Real models (as distinguished from computer models) are very popular.  Prospective clients love looking at them and they have enough of an abstract quality to resist too much projection into them.  They are relatively small and kind of cute.  These kinds of models, crafted from basswood and finely honed, are usually just show models, not the working design tools of architects.  Working models, of torn paper and glue blobs, are generally not dragged out for the public’s viewing, resplendent as they are with the obvious signs of misstakes and decisions taken and abandoned.  But it is those same process models that so many architects love, that are an integral part of learning in architecture school, and that so often get jettisoned from the design process in the professional world.  Some offices still employ model-makers or interns that act as such, but this is usually only for the pretty presentation models described above.  The reality is that most architects as they get older, no longer mess around with scissors and paper, glue and xacto knives.  It takes a really long time to make all the contours that make up the site for a model on a hilly site.  It takes a really long time to cut and paste, recut and re-glue, tear apart and stick back together, all the pieces and parts of a model that, in the end, has meaning for the designer and maker, but its very messiness and palimpset quality, makes it difficult to present to anyone else.

And yet, it is all the dumb time cutting contours, glueing and waiting to dry, that makes physical models worth the effort.  For while all this semi-mindless work is taking place, you are literally spending time with the project, with the nascent design sitting in front of you.  You can not quickly come up with acceptable solutions or fantastically dynamic computer models that you can toggle on and off the sunlight at the proper latittude, longitude and time of year.  Rather you have to sit there, holding two pieces of cardboard together while the glue sets long enough to cut yet another chunk of foam board or such.  You have time to think, to ponder, forced upon you  by the slowness of the making.  The working design model can help to generate great solutions, spatial constructions that drawings and computer models can not quite get at.  But more importantly, making physical models generates time, creates enough engagement with the process to shut out emails and phone calls, but does not give up its ends so easily or quickly.  Making models makes time, more precious than any other tool than wielded, any software employed, any solution quickly grasped.

Preserving Modernism

That title may seem like an oxymoron to some folks but the reality is that Modernism as a philosophy and style of architecture is about 100 years old.  The national standard for the consideration of historic and architectural significance is 50 years old or greater.  More importantly, with the passage of time we have seen that mid-century modern homes and other buildings, once the objects of scorn, are now eagerly sought after and enthusiastically restored.  Arapahoe Acres in Denver is the best local example of mid-century residential development but there are so many individual buildings not recognized or protected.

Arapahoe Acres houses

There are three major reasons why these buildings, often beautifully designed and extremely well-built, are so frequently on the roles of demolitions.  The first is simple house size.  The average size house has doubled since the 1950s and of course so have buyer’s expectations.  Most folks are no longer willing to share a single bathroom or live with 8′ x 10′ bedrooms.  And these mid-century modern homes certainly do not have the swelling show kitchens of newer builder homes.

kitchen and family space in Arapahoe Acres house

The second reason is familiarity.  Most folks in the United States now recognize the need and desire for preserving some portions of our architectural past.  The frankly fetishistic preservation of every Victorian shack knows no bounds.  However, so many of us find it hard to believe that the small, cramped houses that we grew up in can have any lasting architectural value that the temptation is to demolish these buildings blinded as we are by our own myopic histories.  Not many of us were raised in the grand Victorian houses that represent so much of historic districts across the country.  They seem like sentinels of a better time and place – large, spacious rooms, fine craftsmanship, broad lawns.  However, all the crappy, drafty junky shed-like houses and tenements where the vast majority of people lived have been torn down (or fell down on their own).  The preserved fine homes of yesteryear are only a very small and select portion of the housing stock of that era.  My thoughts would extend as well to the mid-century houses in a similar fashion – save the very best, not all the rest.

window/masonry detail, mid-century modern house

The third reason is a phantom – the bogey man of energy efficiency.  I am not going to argue that these houses are easy and cost-effective to heat or cool, they are not.  But neither are their Victorian cousins with the huge interior volumes and equal lack of insulation.  The thin, non-thermally-broken aluminum windows of the 1950s-70s are truly dreadful in both R-value and air infiltration, but the vast majority of a house’s energy loss is through the wall envelope and the windows usually represent no more than 10% of the building’s energy losses.  Blowing in insulation in wall cavities, adding it in ceiling/roofs, does far better than replacing windows and is the same need and process for a Modernist house as it for any other style and era of architecture.

As a local example, the City of Boulder has hundreds of individually landmarked buildings in addition to the 10 historic districts (which are largely made up of traditional, non-Modern buildings).  Of these hundreds of buildings, there are only about 5 that are Modernist in design and sensibility.  Two of them, a house and a multi-family residence, are designed by noted local architect Glen Huntington:

Huntington Arms

Thornton House

Only one of works of Charles Haertling, Boulder’s finest Modernist architect, is individually landmarked.  Few of the houses of James Hunter, Jacques Hampton and many other notable architects are protected although many of these buildings are at least as architecturally significant as so many other protected works.   I am not advocating a battle between saving yet another generic Victorian house versus a really fine mid-century masterpiece like the Willard House.  Preservation is not a mutually-exclusive game.  I am advocating looking at our recent past, to buildings and houses of the 1950’s- 1970’s and carefully assessing their value and meaning and providing some protections for the really great works among them.

Willard House, by Charles Haertling

good clients and difficult sites make for good buildings

After a really honest and inspirational meeting with a client I received this email:

“I have been thinking more about our conversation on Friday (which I enjoyed greatly). I am not afraid of pushing the envelope. One of the things I notice when I look at Haertling’s really good homes is that he dared to be different, and I am sure in the face of questioning, criticisms, outrage even. I have found, that when folks say, “I don’t like it,” it’s usually their de facto reaction to something out of the ordinary, something they don’t get or don’t want to – because it’s not what they are used to seeing in their favorite glossy mag, TV show or what’s around them. Often the collective “I don’t like it” has been a good barometer for me to say I am – at least design/art wise – pushing something in the right direction.

Whether it is materials, form, contrast, going for a variance, etc., I want us to dare to be extraordinary. Be skeptical of the “I don’t like it.” Usually it means I am moving in the right direction. I feel strongly that we have the opportunity to do something as iconic as the best Haertling house, and that to do so, it may be ignoring the protests of those who rarely leave their comfort zone.

The more you tell me about yourself – “I love building and buildings” – the more I am glad we are working on this together. I want you to push yours, Courtney’s and my imaginations. That may not be easy for Court and I as we both have wild imaginations. I sense that you do to. When Courtney says, “I don’t want my house to look like every other modern house built in Boulder, I know what she means. We were driving by the new bank building on the corner of Walnut and 28th – being built right now, and I said to her that all these buildings exhibit the same three factors – three materials, one of which is steel and one of which is stone, usually with stucco in some earth tone color, production architectural overhangs, squares and rectangles, butterfly, curve, es, or single sloped roof.  This seems to be the case with the Nuevo-modern homes that have sprouted up around town in the past 5-10 years.

Ultimately, I would rather have 100 people say: I just don’t understand,  or piss off a few neighbors maybe, than to make everyone feel comfortable because they think it looks like it came out of Dwell or Sunset or some other derivative of the 2000s perception of modern.”

I have a lot of respect for my clients.  They do what I am not sure I would be willing to do – trust many thousands of dollars and many months in someone to design something for which there are no test drives, no prototypes to walk through, no real-scale, real-time testing.  Only after most of the money has been spent can we stand in the nascent construction and begin to get a notion of what the final space will feel like.  Sure, they can read drawings, study models and sketches, but those are fairly abstract compared to the built reality.  In the end, they have faith in me and that is not taken lightly.  That they also want me to step out onto the unknown with them, for them, is a staggering responsibility and frankly the most thrilling prospect I can imagine.  By showing no fear, clients help make us fearless.  As architects we must reward that bravery with something truly amazing.


As I was working on a couple of different posts I have been very distracted with my youngest’s endeavors with drawing monsters.

I know that every parent thinks their kid’s drawings are amazing and the best ever, but, all prejudice aside, I must say these are some really excellent monsters:

First, the dreaded cat monster.  Carefully note the cat monster has itself as a logo on its cat monster costume.

Next, the super-girl monster.  I’m not really sure if this is a monster at all, but super-girl in our house has many powers, some wielded without discretion or mercy.  You will see that the cape is quite dynamic and of course the utility belt is present.

I don’t really know the name of the next monster, but let’s call him birthday-cake monster.  He may seem festive at first blush, but do not be fooled.

And finally, the most feared monster of all, Emi herself.  I think she drew this because in our discussions on monster she remembered that I call her a little monster quite frequently.  So, there she is, Emi-monster (not sure about the ear rings, but the expression is dead on).  You will see in all these depictions that the monsters are not really so scary as they are mischievous and unpredictable.  All art is reflective.


Courtyards are the most luxurious spaces in the world.

The inside of a building is clearly a space ordered and controlled – by an owner, by an architect. A courtyard, though tightly bound, is more a piece of nature borrowed, than a space owned.  It is open, but closed; concealed within, but open above.  Most of all, a courtyard is sensuous – a stone bench, warmed by the sun; a cool, shadowy corner with the sound of a fountain trickling;  and the ever present sky overhead.

I don’t mean simply an outdoor space with walls around. That is an unintentional space, often a left-over space.  Those are the dreary light wells of old apartments with dirty air swirling around a trash-filled floor.  Those are the thankless, dank spaces between buildings, unused and unloved by all.

What I am talking about here are the spaces intended as courtyards, spaces that hold nature lightly in the heart of a building.  They are spaces where nature is domesticated but not tamed.  Where the rain still falls, the heat and cold still pervade.  But they are spaces that belong to humans, where nature is more an honored guest in the house, and by extension, they exist in houses where nature is honored.

For an architect, a courtyard-centered design makes inescapably clear that the medium in which we work is not primarily walls and ceilings and floors, but space itself.  The proportions and scale of a courtyard are probably more critical to the use and quality of this space than any equivalent interior room.  Very small nuances of materials and dimensions, the angle of the sun at lunch, the place of the setting sun at the end of the day, are are so critical and intimately connect the courtyard to the natural world.  And, by limiting the natural world to a view of primarily the sky or a single panoramic side, it is nature distilled and focused.  But is still as variable as nature would allow, through the day, through the seasons.

Every courtyard is a place on the earth like no other. A courtyard marries the culture of the house to the nature of the earth.  It is both, entwined.

Preservation paradigm – less stick, more carrot

The City of Boulder recently unveiled yet another in a series of historic building surveys.  This one, on Post World War II residential suburban developments, looked at typical builder suburbs built in Boulder between 1946 and 1967.  This survey, like many others in the past, was executed by volunteers and city staff, but largely by a consultant,  TEC, Inc., through a Colorado Historical grant.

historic advertisements, as documented in the survey

This massive tome is no small thing. Certainly it is not small in either the size of the survey area – hundreds of houses in ten different suburbs – nor in the compiled results –  hundreds of pages of inventory surveys, historical context reporting and addendum.  And most importantly maybe, it is no small thing in terms of its public reception.  Primarily because of a consultant’s recommendation for the creation of a new historic district, this survey has been met with suspicion at best, if not outright hostility.  As a member of the Landmark’s Board who’s job it is to “approve” the survey, I went to a small public meeting and heard a large, clear “No!“.  The local residents wanted to make it abundantly clear that they did not in any way want their neighborhoods, full of small builder homes, to join the large Victorian houses of Mapleton Hill and the other historic districts in Boulder.

The historic preservation staff and myself tried to make it very clear that no one had any intention of creating historic districts in Martin Acres or Table Mesa or any of the other suburbs surveyed.  On the heels of last year’s Compatible Development regulations, the homeowner’s characterized this survey and its recommendations as yet another unwarranted and unwanted imposition of the City of Boulder’s heavy hand on their homes.  What has been discussed is the creation of “character areas” in lieu of historic districts and the lack of a definition of this new category flamed suspicion, and maybe rightly so.

Table Mesa shutters

The staff and Landmarks Board do not know what a “character area” is.  Or how it would work.  Or where it would be applied.  The public meeting was a way to solicit some interest in helping to define this nebulous definition, to gauge some passion for a program that might represent a new paradigm in how preservation can work in Boulder.

A character area may be a way of saying, “how can we help you to maintain what you like about your neighborhood”, rather than a phalanx of restrictive regulations.  In these cases, the alternative to helping folks maintain their neighborhood is not going to be its protection, but its demolition.  If making additions, renovations and changes to your house is made (or has already been made)  increasingly difficult, then homeowners will turn to dem0lition as their only viable path.  In historic districts, projects are reviewed on an individual, house-by-house process, applying general principles to specific cases.  Because of this individual review, if an existing zoning regulation like solar shadow restrictions or bulk planes, creates a condition that is detrimental to the development of the property, within a set of defined guidelines, then the powers that be have the option to waive that regulation.  A character area may be a mechanism for expanding what you can do, not defining what you can’t.

And that possibility, the ability of city staff and the board to create more options for your property, not less, is radical indeed and needs some time to sink in.  Helping to frame the future’s history is certainly more interesting than regulating history’s future.