Eldorado Springs addition

Construction has finally started on our project, a small addition, for a single-family house in Eldorado Springs.

Of course, what the start of construction really means is usually mud.  As you can see, some careful excavation (by hand around the tree) and a late spring snow has left a construction site of mud, dirt and a general mess.  That construction almost always starts with about the largest mess you can imagine in your house and finishes with a full professional cleaning, the shine gleaming off every surface, is the great work of construction:  counteracting the second law of thermodynamics, the course of entropy, or creating order out of disorder.  The general contractor would not like their jobsite described as “disorder”, but it is certainly not the order of everyday life, of domestication.

That difference, the difference between a domestic order and construction order, plays out most distinctly in the first and last few days of every construction job.  The sudden surge of construction personnel, the violence of excavation and demolition, always slightly shock a homeowner with their ferocity and loss of privacy.  The opposite end of this sequence, the completion of construction, also sees the same tensions.  As a homeowner moves back into their house, workers are still finishing last items, fixing small issues.  The various painters, laborers and carpenters still see the house as a jobsite, not someone’s home.  They come and go as needed, often without knocking, and parking vehicles and placing equipment as required for the task, not the order of a private house.  As a consequence, the first experience so many homeowners have of their new house or addition is not the secure, grounded feeling of home, but rather a strange limbo of living in a house that is part jobsite, part home.  This quickly fades as the workers slowly disappear, but the few days of a kind of co-habitation, like the beginning of construction, are the true marks of the ends of a project, not the contract signing or completion of Substantial Completion forms.  That the violently creative act of construction is bracketed by an ambiguous shift from ownership to stewardship and back, is endlessly fascinating and needs careful navigation.

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modular housing

There are a lot of really quite nice modular housing products designed by architects.  The state of standard residential design and construction is so deplorable and the potential promise in alleviating this through manufactured housing is so great that it is difficult not love these projects.  On a number of projects we have flirted with either complete or partial modular, if not panelized, construction to save time and money.  However, in each case we were proposing the design of a one-off, custom house – a process not suited to the advantages of the factory-built house.  In each case we later decided against modular construction for a number of reasons.

The recent designs by very talented architects are certainly a long way away from the double wide manufactured home, both in design and technical quality.

Pugh + Scarpa Vail Grant House

Marmol Radziner Desert House

And, there are an awful lot of websites and magazine articles fervently debunking the negative stereotypes of manufactured housing. Maybe their time has finally come.

However, I can not find myself jumping on the bandwagon.  Modular construction at its best allows for most of the construction to take place off-site and may be well suited for projects with very short building seasons or environmentally sensitive sites.  However, the high-design modular prototype that is flogged so relentlessly in architecture journals and websites is not generated from these conditions.  Rather it is proposed, en masse, as a solution to America’s dreadful housing stock.  I fail to understand how generically designed buildings, without input from clients or site-specific conditions, is any better than crappy builder plans of Tudors, Victorians and ranches.  I think the notion is that if we only lived in cool, Modern-looking homes then we would all be better off.  This is about the worse kind of ideological architectural language snobbery I can imagine.

So my protest against modular construction is in two forms:

1.  Modular prototypes are merely products, not architecture.  If they are generic and designed for imagined sites then they are no better than any other “model” homes.  This kind of work dumbs down architecture, both as a profession and an art.  It substitutes taste for invention and usually low-paid repetitive work for the skilled labor of carpenters, masons, roofers, etc.

2.  Modular construction of custom houses is an architect’s attempt to be even more of a control-freak over the building process than a set of drawings and specifications enables.  Rarely does the cost of construction, when you include everything including all utilities, foundations, etc. have significant savings over conventional construction.  Cutting the builder out of the process of making buildings again posits the building process as product design, and the proliferation of these designs online and in the design press compounds the notion that architecture is largely a visual medium.

Working with a good builder allows the architect and homeowner to craft the building over the life of the construction.  Changes are made, conditions are modified, serendipitous events become buildings.

Douglas Cutler Connecticut House

Specht Harpman zeroHouse

I certainly know that not everyone, in fact hardly any one can afford to build and live in an architect-designed custom home.  I can’t.  But I think it is ridiculous to think that the dreaded expanses of cookie-cutter suburban homes would be any better if the cookies had a different shape.

I would advocate an architecture that is site-specific, client-specific and instilled with the hands of the people who put the building together.  Later in life LeCorbusier’s pure white villas gave way to brutalist, “messy” buildings like the houses at Jauol.  The project was not a constructed abstraction direct from the architect’s head to the site.  Rather, it was embodied with the work, the opinions and the craft of masons, carpenters, glazers, etc.  Their work was not perfect, it was never intended to be, for a building is not prototyped product, it is a living, expressive entity, beautiful and functional in the least, and in the finest work, transcendent and poetic.

For my part, I will spend my time working on projects with real clients, challenging or not, on real sites, challenging or not, and making real buildings, with all the thrills and disappointments working with dozens of carpenters, painters, electricians, and craftsmen entails.

plaster and lath

before the dominance of gypsum board or drywall, the building of a simple interior wall was a layered construction.  On top of the studs, thin strips of wood lath were installed, usually with gaps.  On top of these strips a brown coat of plaster was applied and roughly smoothed out.  After drying and sometimes a bit of sanding, a final coat of fine plaster was troweled over the brown coat.  Often this final coat had pigments mixed in giving the wall an integral color.

The advantages of simple sheets of drywall notwithstanding, plaster construction was a kind of weaving – vertical and horizontal lines of support and strength.  The gaps between the lath strips allowed the plaster to push through and around the strips, holding it more consistently to the wall.

When we work on older buildings, we end up demolishing a lot of these walls.  The detritus of a plaster wall is piles and piles of broken wood and crusty plaster, clouds of dust.  But after the plaster and lath comes down, the echo of its life remains in the staccato pattern of marked studs, rafters and joists.

These marks speak of the former woven, layered walls and ceilings – a construction laid on by hands, of a liquid turned to a solid, of a phase-change from houses made by hand, to houses assembled from goods.

'collage' construction photos

In Boulder, we are working on the renovation and addition to a 1890’s house on Walnut.  To accomplish this, we have removed the poorly-built 1960’s addition to reveal the interface of the old building with its younger construction.

collage02

These are a couple of photos showing the various levels of board sheathing, OSB, siding, and framing that now compose the temporary exterior of the building.  If only more of current construction could have this kind of crazy juxtaposition collage of materials, colors and textures.

collage03

‘collage’ construction photos

In Boulder, we are working on the renovation and addition to a 1890’s house on Walnut.  To accomplish this, we have removed the poorly-built 1960’s addition to reveal the interface of the old building with its younger construction.

collage02

These are a couple of photos showing the various levels of board sheathing, OSB, siding, and framing that now compose the temporary exterior of the building.  If only more of current construction could have this kind of crazy juxtaposition collage of materials, colors and textures.

collage03

projects under construction, Boulder, Colorado

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In the midst of a dismal economic environment, we are lucky to be staying busy with a number of projects in design and five in construction.

Four of the under-construction projects are in Boulder, Colorado, with another in Chicago.  Each is a combination of addition and renovation, with clients engaged and willing to transform their current house into something more.

We are getting started on another project outside of Eldorado Springs in Colorado, and possibly another in South Boulder.  Both of these projects are in the early design phases, with each house seeing a combination of renovation and addition to better accommodate growing families.  In one case the family has young children growing out of their small rooms, in the other a family is growing as older parents move back in with their adult children.’

As usual, in all of these projects we are projecting into the future.  However, the multi-generational work of the homes highlights the transitory nature of the house, allowing a home to be a changeable, flexible space endowed with memories and dreams, not merely a fixed architectural object.

It is also good to see construction activity humming along at each jobsite.  Carpenters, masons, electricians, etc. are all busy working.  Our drawings become the conduit through which local tradespeople can thrive.  Each line on paper, each note, is a task, a livelihood.

construction

studs

framing

wires

After a very busy week of site visits and construction changes, it is difficult to see the buildings we have designed as anything other than a series of problems.  Getting to the original image and feeling of the design is the goal, but it is always interesting to see the trees, knowing the forest is yet to come.