Second grade urbanism

Direct from the wee urban planners of Mrs. Burger’s second grade class at Bear Creek Elementary School comes a new vision of city living:

Icicle City

The small, tall buildings are individual houses and the city is divided into distinct neighborhoods, each with its own collection of civic buildings – police station, fire station, airport, library, and because this is Boulder: the recycling center and Humane Society.    Actually the substructure of each building is a milk carton and the whole thing is a creative re-use project, making art (and urbanism) out of the collected used milk and juice cartons of the class.

(Boulder’s anti-density, NIMBYs might note that Icicle City is quite nice and the density is quite high – even 8 year olds know that much)

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a house lost to fire

A weekend of working through a lot of drawings has put me hopelessly behind on the Reverb 10 project.  Catching up may not be possible, but in the midst of many studio hours logged over the last few days, I have been thinking about Friday’s prompt:

Pick one moment during which you felt most alive this year

I am working on a design for a house for a couple who lost their house in the recent Fourmile Fire west of Boulder.  The first time I was going to meet them at their burned-out house, in that devastated landscape, I went up a bit early to give myself some time to react to the aftereffects of the fire without embarassing myself, without letting the sadness of the scene overwhelm me.

Looking at these now, I can still vividly recall the dry, blowing ash, the snow-crunch under foot of glass, embers and debris.  And of course the somber black of the trees and landscape and the desiccated whiteness of hard-baked drywall.  But most of all, the smell of smoke that lingered in my car for week.  I have a small piece of broken, melted glass from the fire in my office and just looking at it recalls that smoke, acrid and merciless.

new project – Sunshine Canyon house

I am very excited to be working on a new house project for a couple who lost their house in the recent Fourmile Canyon fire just west of Boulder.  I feel deeply for their loss – years of mementos, photos, etc. all lost, not to mention the house itself, the repository of years of memories and events.  So it is kind of odd for me to be happy working on a project that stems, to some extent, from a great sadness.  But I can’t help it, I love to make buildings, to sit down with folks, listen to their stories, their dreams and thoughts and try to give form to those explicit and implicit desires.

The design we are working on tries to balance the centrifugal forces that are directed toward magnificent mountain panoramic views with the centripetal forces that focus on a courtyard and the internal landscape of the house.

These are some relatively early views of SketchUp model of the project.  SketchUp is a great tool and its integration with Google Earth allows us to upload the model and place it in the actual topography and verify view corridors to specific sites – in this case, a distant view east to Denver and extensive views west and south to the mountains.

While I would probably never give up the tools of physical models, sketches, plans, etc., the use of SketchUp is a powerful tool that might tempt one away from such traditional design methods.  It can in fact be a bit difficult to remember that even though we can make a fully rendered model of the project that we can walk through, view furniture and the light streaming in, that we have not completed the design of the project.  We may have crafted the space and maybe even captured some of the touch and feel of the building, but we hardly even touched the larger and more difficult task of detailing the structure.  Every eave, every handrail, every window mutin has yet to be drawn and studied.  As my friend David Leary says, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

barn, Sunshine Canyon

Along with 170 or so houses, there was at least one barn lost in the recent Fourmile Fire.  It was not remarkable or even functional, with walls falling apart and a partial roof.  It stood by its self in a little field right along Sunshine Canyon Drive, a visible and much loved signpost along the road.

The fire burned up from Fourmile Canyon to the north and east, over the ridge that is Sunshine Canyon Drive and partially down the other side.  There was a very controlled line just west of the Bald Mountain parking area but this barn was lost on the east side of that.  I don’t know exactly how it happened but the burn immediately around barn indicates that a few embers probably caught the old, dry wood of the barn and the flames were contained.

This barn marked the turnoff from Sunshine Canyon Drive that was the access road to a project I designed and that I visited frequently during construction.  A couple times a week for about three years, I watched this barn slowly, almost imperceptibly, fall down while our project was building up.  And, like many architects, the barn held a fascination for me that took me into the falling structure to poke around and take dozens of photos.  The beautiful, simply structure housed a couple of old rotten-stuffing upholstered chairs, a stove, and a whole army of rusty cans and pails.

And now, the site holds only the memory of that old barn.  No one will rebuild it, or ever could recreate the strange and intriguing air that floats around inside abandoned buildings.

critical regionalism – an experiential approach, Part Two

As an extension of the thoughts in Part One, I would like to talk about some of the possible architectural responses to local geology and climate discussed in the previous post.  What is of interest here is how these responses may combine to create a body of work that expresses a kind of regionalism without regard to specific building form or style.  Below are descriptions of the types of architectural responses that might be found in the Rocky Mountains and when synthesized in various combinations, may describe a kind of regionalist architecture.  I have included some photos from a house I designed a couple of years ago to possibly demonstrate the architectural response to a given condition.

Soil Conditions

point loads on posts and lintels

The seasonal expansion and contraction of our local soils and the ability to point load on granite might drive a design to be more expressive of post-and-lintel type construction than continuous wall construction as is typical.  This is obviously very dependent on exact, specific soil conditions and may not express itself in all projects.

Solar gain

Because of the intensity of the sun and general aridity of the mountain West, the roof is often used more as a shading device than a rain protector.  This results in large overhangs which create a kind of interstitial space between the interiority of the building and the purely uncovered exterior space of the landscape.  This middle space of covered outdoor space may also become more formalized as covered terraces or balconies.

Another resultant of the intense solar gain is its effect on building materials.  Untreated wood, left exposed for even a short period, will quickly splinter and decay.  Even when treated, the UV rays of the sun quickly breakdown most stains and paints, making wood a relatively short-lived building material especially when compared to the centuries-old timbers and siding of East Coast houses.

exterior "room", partially roofed

Lastly, the infrequency of rain also coincides with an abundance of sunny days, around 300 or so per year.  Given the general altitude of much of the mountain west, that means that even on a freezing day, a pleasant afternoon can be spent on an outside terrace in direct sunlight.  So, like many California modernist houses, this creates the ability to live outside for much of the year, although this tends to be more for winter afternoons and summer mornings rather than purely seasonally determined.

Windy, dry conditions

very limited use of exposed wood (stone walls, metal roof)

The combination of occasionally fierce winds and frequently very low humidity creates many days of red-flag fire danger days.  These conditions, combined with the intense solar gain, quickly deteriorates wood, making it even more susceptible to even the smallest falling ember.  This may make a strong case for eliminating exposed wood from building exteriors and using much more fire-resistant materials like stone and metals.  Abundant native stone, both granites and sandstones, would reinforce this regional material usage preference.

Aridity

xeriscaping right up to the face of the building

As a possible corollary to the windy, dry conditions listed above is the extreme aridity experienced on the east side of the Continental Divide.  Most of our streams and rivers are charged with snow melt, not rainfall, and the storage of water and its conservation has written much of the history of Western land use.  As differentiated from the damp Midwest or East Coast, the lawns of typical houses are irrigated and with growing awareness of the scarcity of water resources, xeriscaping has become the preferred method for treating the land in the spaces between buildings.  These xeriscaped areas are marked not by low, gound-hugging grasses like prototypical “lawns”, but are combinations of native bushes and tall grasses.  Because of this variety and size of plantings, a building in the mountain West does not sit on a generic, de-natured green tableau but is a built moment in a continuous landscape of native plants.  The building does not sit within its own domesticated space of green lawn, but either interfaces directly with “wilderness” or must use other architectural devices to establish this domesticated zone of semi-public, semi-private space.

I am sure there are a lot of other buildings in the mountain West that demonstrate the same or similar responses to these conditions.  In a future post I will try to find classes of other examples that span many different architectural styles but have in common these traits, including vernacular architectures.

Columbia cemetery – necropolis

Older cemeteries within the city are some of the most interesting urban structures.  Almost every city has at least one remaining cemetery sitting in what has become a vital part of the city.  This doesn’t compare to the number of cemeteries that are moved by municipal authorities as they have become surrounded by houses and shops and their land value has greatly exceeded their cultural and historic value.  Paradoxically, what “saves” most old cemeteries is often not their status as hallowed ground nor their famous inhabitants, but the  nature of the living “park” that the cemetery has become.  Nature trumps culture.

On a recent visit to Boulder’s Columbia Cemetery, what is most striking, even more so than the poignancy of the small, worn gravestones, was the use of the necropolis as a place for dog-walking, strolling and making out.  A fairly lively place.

I had thought I would write a post about the architecture of the cemetery, its layout and the different neighborhoods that make up place – military graves in one corner,  older stones tightly spaced, etc.  However, amongst the throngs of running dogs, cellphone squawking talkers and huddle lovers, it was more difficult to study this than I had imagined.

Unlike the cemeteries of the older East Coast cities and Chicago that I have visited, Columbia is not full of the ornate sculptural markers of pre-Raphaelite angels and mourning cloths.  It does have plenty of simple, modest markers signalling maybe a simple life, simply lived, one of so many.

So normally I would suggest a visit to your local cemetery, to walk around the markers and spend a quiet afternoon.  But don’t go for that.  It is really too crowded with the living to pay attention to the dead.  In Boulder, go to the cemetery –  go and enjoy a nice park without runners, without cyclists, without cross-training tri-athletes, without any “sports” at all except the eternal battle of dog versus squirrel.

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