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

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.

Post-fire rebuilding – first draft of new County regulations

On Thursday, September 30th, Boulder County government held another update meeting for homeowners and the design and construction community on the status of potential regulations for rebuilding efforts after the Fourmile fire.  The new regulations regarding building permits, site plan review, septic systems and waste disposal were discussed.  Most of the meeting was consumed with discussions and complaints about the State of Colorado’s recent clarifications to waste disposal regulations for potentially asbestos containing material.

Cleanup, Demolition & Deconstruction

The State’s latest directive on this will require that buildings that have been completely destroyed by the fire be treated as assuming asbestos contamination.  Because of the degraded nature of the building materials, no testing will be sufficient to prove, or disprove, the presence of asbestos containing material.  The following procedures will be required:

  • Materials must be wetted to minimize dust; packaged inside a double 6-mil plastic sheeting liner in an end-dump roll-off with the sheeting completely closed over the material once the roll-off is loaded.
  • The roll-off can only be taken to designated landfills.
  • The landfill must be contacted prior to moving the material to confirm waste acceptance and initiate waste profile.
  • Contractors should consult OSHA regulations to determine required training and personal protective equipment that will be required for those handling this material.

These regulations have only recently (within the last week) issued and have come as quite a surprise to homeowners, contractors and the County.  Some folks have already begun filling up roll-offs that may have to be off-loaded and reloaded under the new restrictions.  The number of loads will be significantly increased, greatly adding to the cost of cleanup.  This is an especially egregious regulation for structures built after 1984 when asbestos was no longer used in building materials.

Additional items:

  • In addition, metals can be recycled, but must first be “rinsed”.  I am not sure at this time if this water would then have to be treated or not.
  • Foundation removal will require a State demoliton permit.
  • Deconstruction will not be required although strongly encouraged.
  • No Boulder County permits or fees are required for cleanup.

Site Plan Review, Building Permitting

There will be three-tier system for rebuilds:

  1. For rebuilding in the same basic location, at the same size and height, no Site Plan Review will be required for 2 years, extending the current regulation from 6 months.
  2. For rebuilding in the same location but adding up to 10% of the existing building area, there will be a 2 week streamlined review process.
  3. For rebuilding in a significantly different location or of larger size or height, the normal Site Plan Review process will be required.

Additional planning items:

  • The 2009 IRC code will come into effect in January and will be the acting code at that time.  All rebuilds will have to meet building codes.
  • Sprinklers will be required for any structures larger than 3,600 square feet and this provision may change with the adoption of the new codes.
  • TDCs (Transferable Development Credits) will be available for properties rebuilding under the size threshold.
  • The County’s BuildSmart program will apply to all rebuilds, although there may be some modification for properties requiring renewables because of a building area trigger.

    These planning provisions are not final.  A draft of the provisions listed above will be issued next week, presented to Planning Board on October 2oth and the County Commissioners on the 21st.  These are public meetings and you should attend if you would like to be heard.

Fourmile Fire Community Mapping Project

In the aftermath of the recent fire, a new landscape has been formed.  The formerly isolated houses in Sunshine and Fourmile canyons, nestled in thick stands of pines and occasional aspens, have been opened up to wide-open vistas and uninterrupted panoramas due to the staggering loss of trees.  From a single house site you can see across valleys and draws to distant hillsides and see houses, some standing, some not, that were never before visible.  These views of other houses have become if not the dominant then at least very significant, new landscape feature.  So, along with the sense of community that was forged in the tragedy of the fire, there is a new visible community apparent like never before.

Standing out in that denuded landscape, the immediate question occurs to everyone looking out at newly visible neighbor’s properties – “are they rebuilding?”  – “are they moving their house to a new location?”  -“I didn’t know that road existed.”

San Francisco Bay Area Seismic Retrofit mapping project by EERI

To that question, there are a number of people that are proposing an online community mapping project.  Using Google Earth as a platform, the idea is to build 3D computer models of new and existing houses as they progress in the rebuilding project.  Along with the buildings will come the knowledge, publicly accessible, of what is being done, who is rebuilding and when.  This is an attempt to fill in the gap of the unknown, of the uncertain prospect, of living again in that beautiful but scarred landscape.

Community mapping projects take many forms, from economic resources to educational opportunities.  This map will attempt to record the past – in models of houses pre-fire, and the present and future – in models, geo-located within Google Earth, of houses proposed and under construction.  The map’s beginning will be simple.  The first stage is to add some information like property boundaries and driveway access to layers on the existing Google Earth topography.  The next step is outreach – to encourage homeowners, of houses existing and proposed, to include their building information on the map.  This can take the form of a precise SketchUp model uploaded to Google Earth as created by their architect, or a simple marker indicating some intention of rebuilding or not.  This basic information will allow any homeowner, along with the local fire department and sheriff’s office, to identify what is being done in what location.  A homeowner will be able to “stand” in the location of their new or proposed house and look out over the landscape and survey who else is rebuilding and where.  Architect’s will be able to use the model to craft designs that can respect the views and forms of other houses and possibly to pool resources during construction.  The local emergency responders will be able to look at the entire model and know if there is any longer a building at the end of that driveway and the location of new access roads.

Google Earth topographic view from Bald Mtn looking east along Sunshine Canyon Drive

Potential layers are endless and can be added over time.  GIS information indicating plant species, steep slopes, soils types, solar access and other layers can be included and will greatly help everyone in the rebuilding process.

Key to this process is the participation of as many homeowners, architects and builders as possible.  Inevitably questions of privacy arise and I think a simple and frank discussion can ally those fears.  Certainly the advantages of this information I think will surpass the possible negatives. I want to strongly encourage everyone’s participation and I would be happy to sit down with any homeowner, architect or builder to explain the process and power that this map can convey.

The group putting together this effort includes the local architects as both project directors and participating architects:

Michelle Wheatley of Studio Arc-Hive

Juana Gomez of Lawrence and Gomez Architects

Y. Rosemary Fivian, Architect

Mark Gerwing, M. Gerwing Architects

A map ties information to location.  It is a tool for information and visualization.  But most importantly this kind of map is a constituent of community.  It will give everyone an idea of what has been and what is to come.  By including information pre- and post-fire it links information to location to time, history and future.

Please feel free to contact any of us listed above if you have any questions or suggestions.  We hope to have a website up and running soon and this will include the first of the models located on the landscape.  We will need lots of help to build as much of the existing area as possible – all of the Gold Hill buildings, existing houses, etc. – and we will have a quick workshop about how to quickly build models and to solicit help and advice.

Many thanks to the good folks at Boulder’s own Concept3D, the leader in the field of database rich 3D mapping technology and Google SketchUp for providing technical assistance and advice.

check out the website, 4milemap, and you will be able to see current projects as well as some posts on rebuilding advice and stages in the ongoing community mapping project.

clustered development

There has been a lot written about clustered design vs. conventional zoning and house placement, but much of it focuses on suburban lot development, not the large parcels of rural lands.  However, some of the issues are the same and worth taking a look at like the EPA Stormwater paper on clustered development (that speaks to much wider issues than stormwater).

Bear Tooth Ranch site plan with bldg envelopes in red and view corridors shown

More applicable to the situation up on Sunshine Canyon and Fourmile, may be the excellent clustered development plan developed for Bear Tooth Ranch outside of Golden, Colorado.  Each of these lots are 35 acres, but the building envelopes, the area allowed for house construction, within each lot is significantly smaller and clustered with the same of other parcels.  As you can see from the site plan, three or so houses are relatively close to each other but that placement has been very carefully designed such that each house looks away from each other with its own view corridor.  Very careful study of the land, on foot, with great sensitivity and thoughtfulness is required to pull this off successfully.  At Bear Tooth Ranch, the result is very large swaths of open space, much larger than if every house was placed without thought of its neighbors.  I use this example because I think it is quite well executed but also because the situation out there – large, treeless areas, is similar to the post-fire landscape in rural Boulder. No longer are those houses up in Sunshine and Fourmile canyons nestled amongst stands of trees, visually isolated from each other.  Each house will have to look at their neighbors for quite some time unless the placement of the rebuilds is considered and careful.  I am not suggesting some kind of County-imposed zoning but rather a community effort, neighbor to neighbor engaging with each other to benefit each other.  Maybe the cohesiveness that has been formed from this common tragedy can extend for at least a few months more to forge this kind of cooperation.  It certainly is in everyone’s best interest to volunterily work together, like the firefighters did, to retain and engender community.

Octagonal houses and their 'opposite'

You may have noticed in your town a strange, older octagonal house sitting in your neighborhood.  In Boulder, there is one on Lincoln up on the Hill.  These are not the one-off strange concoctions that they may appear to be, but rather the result of an intriguing housing fad from the 1850s.

Lincoln house

The proponent of such odd designs was amateur architect and phrenologist Orson Squire Fowler.  In 1848 Fowler published The Octagon House: A Home for All and in its wake thousands of these curious houses were built all over the country.  Emphasizing their utility and efficiency of construction, the book included few examples but rather outlined some general principles along with some practical alternatives such as rainwater-collecting flat roofs and central heating.  His own house, dubbed Fowler’s Folly, was built out of a kind of concrete using lime instead of the usual Portland cement and without reinforcing limiting the material to walls only.

In making the book more general than the typical pattern books of the time resulted in a wide variety of execution with some 2,000 or so homes still existing from Key West to San Francisco.

Lincoln house, with porch

The example here in Boulder has seen a front porch come and go over the years and is predominantly brick with typical low-pitched roof common to most of these houses.  Built in 1907, it must have been an arresting sight sitting amongst its smaller cottage and Victorian neighbors.  It does not have the audacious majesty of the three-story, full veranda Watertown house in Watertown, Wisconsin, but it is a fine, if not quirky, contributor to the architectural variety and history of Boulder.

Watertown octagon house, Watertown, WI

What I find interesting in these buildings is both their form – heavy, massive objects rooted to the earth – and their origins in the “science” of advanced living – how a general building form has been proposed to improve the lives of its inhabitants and the evangelical zeal of its supporters.  Over the last one hundred years or so we have seen plenty of these “inventions” in housing that were intended to liberate the homeowners.  Even such luminaries as Wright, with his Usonian ideas, and Bucky Fuller, with his domes, believed that a study into building form could improve the lives of people that they never met.  This of course is also akin to all the great advertisements of generic builder-home suburbs of the 1950’s and 60’s.

There certainly are plenty of things that buildings can provide.  They can bring light and hygiene, eliminating the dreadful tenements of the late 19th century.  They can, and usually do, reflect changes, positive or not, in the working lives of families – to dual working couples and the increasingly central role of the kitchen in the life of the house. But these are forms that reflect only generic families, the reductivist quest for a “solution” to modern living.  They do not speak much about who we are as individuals or how we relate to each other, our neighbors, the larger world.  These ambitions are not a part of the project – to bring attractive, affordable housing to as many people as possible.  To do something else, to synthesize the specific world of real people, real individuals and families, not their prescriptive models, is the quest of those of us architects that work in residential design.  The octagon is probably not the ideal building form for all families.

Charles Haertling designed Menkick House, in Knollwood Estates

(photo from DenMod)

For a prime example of singularly unique homes that reflect the character of their owners you can look to the work of Wright or Aalto or any other of the masters of twentieth century architecture.  But, here in Boulder, is not only a excellent set of such houses, but I believe work that stands along and even above, the very best houses of the known architectural heroes.  The work of Boulder’s own Charles Haertling.  I have a number of upcoming posts on his work and his career and I would encourage everyone to take a closer look at the work of this local master.  No two buildings alike, no two homeowners alike, no two sites identical.  And no octagons, “the most heinous shape in all of architecture” (J. Verlinden, Director of Design at Crate and Barrel).