drawing as practice – hand and eye and mind

I often make idea drawings at some time during the duration of the design phase of a project.

Similar to making a physical model of the project, idea drawings take time and are a kind of meditative practice focusing on the nascent building but shedding the usual constraints of setbacks, budgets and functionalism.  There certainly is a kind of mind/body thinking that is enacted only when the hands are engaged in making whether that be cardboard and glue or pencil and paper.

On occasion these drawings are more explicit imaginings of the project space itself, like the image above.  At maybe the other extreme, they can be drawings of just the site or something on the property that sparks the imagination and may not directly influence the project but place you on the site for some concentrated time.

In all cases, they are akin to a slow marinating of the project, stepping away from the quick prep of all the necessary requirements of utility, function, structure and budgets.

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.

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.

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.

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.

hyper-attenuated building syndrome

One of the sure-fire ways of designing a cool looking building in graduate school was to be infected with the Hyper-Attenuated Building Syndrome (HABS).  Any project can be made absurdly long and skinny and by violating any notion of “pleasant” golden-section-type proportions, it instantly propels a project from everyday to extraordinary.  Mind you, this was simply grad school students messing around.  However, the Hyper-Attenuated Building Syndrome is no laughing matter:

Japanese architects are particularly susceptible to HABS but it was not uncommon in nineteenth century Europe:

and pre-colonization America:

The most marked sympton is a building  exceeding a 10:1 length or height to width ratio.  If that means the bedroom is bunkbeds for his-n-hers, so be it, this is an affliction after all.  (Bridges of course don’t really count as they kind of need to be long and skinny.  It is really dependent on the inappropriate length to width ratio that we need be wary of).

As Boulder has a fairly universal 35′ height limit, we are generally immune to the vertical expression of the affliction.  However, an ongoing project that I am working on has a building envelope that is so severe it may have to be looked at by a HABS practioner:

This advanced case is 9′ wide by 127′ long – House for an Archer.

Southern vernacular housing

On a recent trip to rural Virginia, I was particularly struck by the beautiful simplicity of a few of the typical vernacular housing types. I am not talking about the Georgian-red-brick-with-white-trim nor the more contemporary vernacular of manufactured housing. The simple, white-painted wood framed and sided houses of rural Virginia are so simple and straight-forward that they end up being a bold, clear statement in the lush green landscape.

What I saw consisted largely of two types: two-story, single-room deep houses with or without porches and gable-broken front eaves; and, one-story, four room hip roofed houses with integral porches. Both demonstrate the best aspects of vernacular housing – a continuity of building type and building and material technology, and environmental responsiveness.

It is hot and humid in rural Virginia. In the pre-air conditioned South, establishing and maintaining cross ventilation was paramount. The two-story, flat front houses are usually one-room deep allowing for each room to have front and back windows. A central stair and hall is commonly found running right down the middle of the building maximizing the amount of usable space vs. circulation. Most of these houses sport some amount of front porch, shading lower windows as well as providing for an exterior room to escape the heat of the house.

There are two variants of this type: the flat-front and the gable-front. The flat front houses are as simple as they come, most likely balloon-framed right up to the eave, windows stacked over windows. The gable-fronted versions have a small sense of grandeur lent by the partial gable that marks the center of the house and the location of the front door. This is technically a gable, but as it does not serve an attic space nor even a sloping ceiling in the central stair hall, it is really more of a sign of entry and mark of house-proud.

The other common housing type is the hip-roofed, single-story house that completely encompasses a porch under the form of the hip roof. The porch here is not an after-thought but a real extension of the space of the house to create an outdoor room. Again, this shelters front-facing windows from the sun, provides a shady, outdoor room and establishes a site of social interaction. These houses will sometimes have a kind of low-ceilinged second floor, but most often that little front dormer is used to pull the heat of the house up into the roof and out.

Both of these housing types are of course white – the cheapest paint available but also the best at reflecting the heat of the sun. Except for clearly defined porches, they do not have large overhangs to shade windows. This lack of deep eaves may be a response to the lack of available electric lighting at the period of construction. Deep overhangs protect from direct sunlight but also create deeply shadowed interiors, that along with Southern dampness, would make for long, dank winter days.

I love these houses. They are so simple and frank. They stand up from the landscape, not afraid of being a house, a mark of occupation and maybe even civilization. They are not at all ranches – they don’t ramble or flap large wings, they don’t shirk away from their “house-ness”. And of course like all vernacular buildings, they are not trying too hard for your attention. They are a part of their culture, their society. They are not screaming for recognition or uniqueness or even their owner’s desires. First and foremost, they are of a place.