architect’s pet peeve no. 8 – fake quions

“Quoins” are the exposed stone pieces that you sometimes see stacking up only on the corner of a building.  Their use today is odd and usually fake and are trying to allude to traditional masonry construction and presumably the sense of durability, solidity and timelessness that implies.

Quoins provide a kind of emphasis, a visual boldness, to the corners of a building and tend to make the building feel more solid, more object-like. However, like so many elements of architecture that appear to be merely stylistic touches, they have an origin in a construction technology.

Quarrying stone has always been a difficult and expensive proposition. Making a stone building out of the stone that are scattered around the field and forest is a much easier proposition but results in a random rubble type wall.  When that random rubble wall has to turn a corner, the stone of differing sizes and shapes create a visual and technological problem.  Because of its ragged line it collects water, because of the use of small, varied stone, they easily pop off the corner when exposed to the elements from two sides.  Quoins of cut stone were used to contain the edges of stone walls and help solve these exposed corner problems.  Being cut stone they stack nicely and cleanly on each other and their consistent size and shape they solidly and securely hold the corner true and vertical.

However, this technological use of quoins has long been forgotten and they are merely stylistic touches now applied without much subtlety to buildings.  You can see fake stone quoins, face brick quoins, wood quoins trying to look like stone quoins, and best yet, EIFS (fake stucco) quoins, in buildings all over the country.

 

“cast” stone quoins on parade

 

wood "stone" quoins; actually as you can see, quite an old fakery often used by New England ship captains to give their wood houses a sense of class
fake stucco and foam quoins

 

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architect's pet peeve no. 8 – fake quions

“Quoins” are the exposed stone pieces that you sometimes see stacking up only on the corner of a building.  Their use today is odd and usually fake and are trying to allude to traditional masonry construction and presumably the sense of durability, solidity and timelessness that implies.

Quoins provide a kind of emphasis, a visual boldness, to the corners of a building and tend to make the building feel more solid, more object-like. However, like so many elements of architecture that appear to be merely stylistic touches, they have an origin in a construction technology.

Quarrying stone has always been a difficult and expensive proposition. Making a stone building out of the stone that are scattered around the field and forest is a much easier proposition but results in a random rubble type wall.  When that random rubble wall has to turn a corner, the stone of differing sizes and shapes create a visual and technological problem.  Because of its ragged line it collects water, because of the use of small, varied stone, they easily pop off the corner when exposed to the elements from two sides.  Quoins of cut stone were used to contain the edges of stone walls and help solve these exposed corner problems.  Being cut stone they stack nicely and cleanly on each other and their consistent size and shape they solidly and securely hold the corner true and vertical.

However, this technological use of quoins has long been forgotten and they are merely stylistic touches now applied without much subtlety to buildings.  You can see fake stone quoins, face brick quoins, wood quoins trying to look like stone quoins, and best yet, EIFS (fake stucco) quoins, in buildings all over the country.

 

“cast” stone quoins on parade

 

wood "stone" quoins; actually as you can see, quite an old fakery often used by New England ship captains to give their wood houses a sense of class
fake stucco and foam quoins

 

fighting wildfires with building design

The ongoing Fourmile Canyon fire immediately west of Boulder has brought to light the necessity of doing the work to make “defensible space” around your home.  In a city like Chicago, defensible space  means good lighting and safe streets, but here in the Rocky Mountain West it means wildfire mitigation and ignition resistant construction.  It is not only for new construction, every property owner should take heed and can take action now to help protect themselves and their property.

few or no trees immediately surrounding house
vegetation cleared from around house

Boulder County has a two-pronged approach to designing houses and landscapes that can withstand moderate wildfires.  The first is by using only building materials that are ignition resistant.  This does not mean fireproof, but does mean avoiding the use of wood roofing, as in shakes and shingles, and decks.  Even on vertical surfaces, like siding, the wood materials are to be backed by a layer of 5/8″ thick fire resistant gypsum sheathing.  The day of the start of the Fourmile wildfire had the humidity at less than 10%.  If you combine that with the drying effect of high altitude sun, you will see that any exposed wood, in just a season or two, quickly becomes blistered and cracked and is prime kindling.  Thicker sections of wood, like heavy timber are acceptable as they generally surface burn leaving enough material unharmed within to still provide sufficient structural integrity.  The most common mistake is to not fireproof the undersides of overhanging decks and eaves.  Hot gases and embers roll uphill and can catch underneath these projections igniting the entire structure.

very little or no exposed wood and distance between trees and structures
ignition resistant stucco and concrete

Of course most of the concern in these mountainous wildfire zones is concentrated on not starting fires in the first place.  Any houses larger than 3,600 square feet are required to be sprinklered and many locations require substantial fire-fighting water storage cisterns to run that system for a period of time.  A recent project of ours required a 30,000 gallon cistern – about a swimming pool’s worth of water – to be stored on site in semi-buried tanks with fire hose connections.  Fires that start inside houses should not be allowed to set the entire mountain of fire.

hardscape surrounding house
hardscapes around house can be beautiful, not stark

The final part of the defensible space planning is to undertake wildfire mitigation efforts.  These can be done with new or existing structures and essentially boils down to getting rid of wildfire fuels around the immediate area of the house.  It does not mean that you have to live within a perimeter of gravel, but there are zones extending out from the house that reduce bushes and trees to create a fire break between the structure and the surrounding forest.  These zones are based on Boulder County’s Wildfire Mitigation Plan requirements and, in the case of new construction, are inspected prior to occupation of the finished building.

Wildfire Mitigation Plan with defensible zones

It is often painful to cut down trees and remove plantings on the beautiful sites that client’s choose to live.  We architects often complain that the wildfire field inspectors are a bit too quick to clear-cut a hillside.  When we lived up in the mountains it was a hard and painful task, but I cut down some 20+ trees from the area immediately surrounding our house and put many of these zone precautions in place.  This fire should remind us all that these are all simple and necessary parts of living in the mountainous West.

ignition resistant construction
transitions from natural to man-made landscape surrounding house

None of these actions will guarantee that a fire does not devastate your house and property.  However, taking these necessary steps will help the firefighters save your home and will demonstrate to them that you have done all you could do to keep them safe while they work to save your house.

Hoping that all the houses shown above, homes of clients and friends, all located in or near the evacuation zone, are safe in the current fire.  Anyone not in the immediate fire zone but still up in the wildfire interface area of the mountains, contact Boulder County Land Use or the Colorado State Forestry department and they can conduct a review of your property and give great advice on how to take the best measures to protect your house and your selves.  Please do it now.

architect’s pet peeve no. 9 – fake masonry

We have all seen this stuff, the clearly stuck-on fake brick and stone that has completely taken over the real masonry world.

lick'n'stick, with mitered corners no less

There are various levels of atrociousness with this stuff so let’s start by defining what we mean by masorny:

two wythes (at least) thick

LEVEL ONE: real bearing masonry. This is what masonry was 100 years ago. The stone or brick actually held up the weight of the roof and the structure above. It had to be thick, more so at the bottom, to bear the weight. The Monadonack Building in Chicago is many feet thick at the base, composed of multiple wythes (a wythe is a single row thickness of brick) of brick. When you seen header bricks they are not half-bricks, but stretchers turned 90 degrees and spanning over two wythes to tie them together. To bear the weight of even a simple roof, brick or stone had to be thicker than 4 inches (the width of a single wythe of brick).

veneer brick, with soldier course lintel; veneer stone, 4

LEVEL TWO: masonry veneer construction. For decades now the mode of construction when masonry is employed is most often as a thin (4″ – 6″ thick) veneer acting as an exterior finish material and covering the real structural support of the building, be that wood or metal studs or concrete block (commercial block construction is still often bearing – the block you see on the outside of the building is doing the structural work). This mode of masonry is what is most often used in residential construction and the masonry you see, although not holding up the building, is still stacked, stone upon stone, brick upon brick, supported on a concrete foundation. In some unfortunate cases the stone is not real – it is concrete formed units made to look like stone to reduce the cost of the material, but still bearing its own weight.

LEVEL THREE: thin veneer construction. I hesitate to call this masonry because in most instances the whole idea of this technique is to have material so thin, 1 1/2″ or so, that it does not need support from stacking the material up but rather is glued onto the wall. Each piece of fake stone or brick is simply glued to the wall often from the top down or in some strange random pattern that does not reflect gravity or any of the rules of traditional masonry. As this stuff is quite thin, as it turns an outside corner either the ridiculous skinny material is exposed or a fake corner has to be produced.

panels of ?

LEVEL FOUR: thin panel veneer construction. This is essentially paneling masquerading as masonry. These are thin panels of stone or brick, pre-assembled, with staggered side edges to hide the panel joints after installation. These panels are very lightweight and inexpensive and if installed with some care as to edges and joints, can, at a distance, fool almost everyone into thinking it is real LEVEL ONE or TWO masonry. Until the panel starts to peel off the wall at least. Usually the material on the panel is not brick or stone but plastic or resin composites.

THE PRODUCTS

Now that we have laid out the techniques of deception, expecially in LEVEL THREE and FOUR, let’s take a look at the quality of the product. Obviously in all cases if the product being used in made of the same stuff or in the same way as the original it is trying to duplicate there will be a much better chance of replicating its look and application. So, thin veneer brick that is actually cast and molded like brick, from the same clays, will be a much better fake than the vermiculite-pressed products. Same thing with stone – thin cut stone, from an actual quarry, will be far more successful than the dyed-concrete stuff (often known as “cultured stone”). Of course, in LEVEL FOUR, panels of “masonry”, none of this typically occurs.

so many pretty colors!! ...maybe too many.

THE INSTALLATION

I am all for using masonry, especially LEVEL TWO veneer masonry, in ways that do not try to replicate traditional bearing wall construction. Bricks can be laid up as straight-stacked or panelized, each “revealing” their roles as an exterior finish material, not a structurally bearing material. However, this is rarely done and most often the worst abuses of the fake masonry world occur when traditional masonry is desired but the execution, either in installation or a complete failure of the product, fails to understand what masonry is. What am I talking about here? Well, let’s have a little survey of installations that have no idea of what they are doing.

No real mason would ever let so many vertical joints align, especially in a dry-stack type of installation. These fake stone are clearly made in multi-stone units that are simply butted together – usually a sign of concrete faking it as stone. Awful, a product and installation failure.

so many fabulous choices!!

When the stuff is so thin it is glued on rather than stacked, there is no sense of gravity having any sway in this universe. And clearly the corners of this stuff ought to show that the material is maybe more than 2″ thick.

I don’t know what to say about this:

this may have some cool, deconstructivist intention, but I don't think so

Or this:

I think this is the Medieval Times look.

In conclusion: I am no fan of any use of LEVEL THREE of FOUR products or applications unless you are going to clearly apply them like wallpaper and have some fun with it. Hey, how about a brick chair? Or a stone door?

For the LEVEL TWO veneer masonry, let’s either use it in a traditional way – openings would have lintels or soldier courses, the masonry would never hang in the air – or let’s acknowledge its role as merely an exterior protective surface and detail it accordingly.

straight-stacked brick, clear non-structural, but true to its veneer construction

architect's pet peeve no. 9 – fake masonry

We have all seen this stuff, the clearly stuck-on fake brick and stone that has completely taken over the real masonry world.

lick'n'stick, with mitered corners no less

There are various levels of atrociousness with this stuff so let’s start by defining what we mean by masorny:

two wythes (at least) thick

LEVEL ONE: real bearing masonry. This is what masonry was 100 years ago. The stone or brick actually held up the weight of the roof and the structure above. It had to be thick, more so at the bottom, to bear the weight. The Monadonack Building in Chicago is many feet thick at the base, composed of multiple wythes (a wythe is a single row thickness of brick) of brick. When you seen header bricks they are not half-bricks, but stretchers turned 90 degrees and spanning over two wythes to tie them together. To bear the weight of even a simple roof, brick or stone had to be thicker than 4 inches (the width of a single wythe of brick).

veneer brick, with soldier course lintel; veneer stone, 4

LEVEL TWO: masonry veneer construction. For decades now the mode of construction when masonry is employed is most often as a thin (4″ – 6″ thick) veneer acting as an exterior finish material and covering the real structural support of the building, be that wood or metal studs or concrete block (commercial block construction is still often bearing – the block you see on the outside of the building is doing the structural work). This mode of masonry is what is most often used in residential construction and the masonry you see, although not holding up the building, is still stacked, stone upon stone, brick upon brick, supported on a concrete foundation. In some unfortunate cases the stone is not real – it is concrete formed units made to look like stone to reduce the cost of the material, but still bearing its own weight.

LEVEL THREE: thin veneer construction. I hesitate to call this masonry because in most instances the whole idea of this technique is to have material so thin, 1 1/2″ or so, that it does not need support from stacking the material up but rather is glued onto the wall. Each piece of fake stone or brick is simply glued to the wall often from the top down or in some strange random pattern that does not reflect gravity or any of the rules of traditional masonry. As this stuff is quite thin, as it turns an outside corner either the ridiculous skinny material is exposed or a fake corner has to be produced.

panels of ?

LEVEL FOUR: thin panel veneer construction. This is essentially paneling masquerading as masonry. These are thin panels of stone or brick, pre-assembled, with staggered side edges to hide the panel joints after installation. These panels are very lightweight and inexpensive and if installed with some care as to edges and joints, can, at a distance, fool almost everyone into thinking it is real LEVEL ONE or TWO masonry. Until the panel starts to peel off the wall at least. Usually the material on the panel is not brick or stone but plastic or resin composites.

THE PRODUCTS

Now that we have laid out the techniques of deception, expecially in LEVEL THREE and FOUR, let’s take a look at the quality of the product. Obviously in all cases if the product being used in made of the same stuff or in the same way as the original it is trying to duplicate there will be a much better chance of replicating its look and application. So, thin veneer brick that is actually cast and molded like brick, from the same clays, will be a much better fake than the vermiculite-pressed products. Same thing with stone – thin cut stone, from an actual quarry, will be far more successful than the dyed-concrete stuff (often known as “cultured stone”). Of course, in LEVEL FOUR, panels of “masonry”, none of this typically occurs.

so many pretty colors!! ...maybe too many.

THE INSTALLATION

I am all for using masonry, especially LEVEL TWO veneer masonry, in ways that do not try to replicate traditional bearing wall construction. Bricks can be laid up as straight-stacked or panelized, each “revealing” their roles as an exterior finish material, not a structurally bearing material. However, this is rarely done and most often the worst abuses of the fake masonry world occur when traditional masonry is desired but the execution, either in installation or a complete failure of the product, fails to understand what masonry is. What am I talking about here? Well, let’s have a little survey of installations that have no idea of what they are doing.

No real mason would ever let so many vertical joints align, especially in a dry-stack type of installation. These fake stone are clearly made in multi-stone units that are simply butted together – usually a sign of concrete faking it as stone. Awful, a product and installation failure.

so many fabulous choices!!

When the stuff is so thin it is glued on rather than stacked, there is no sense of gravity having any sway in this universe. And clearly the corners of this stuff ought to show that the material is maybe more than 2″ thick.

I don’t know what to say about this:

this may have some cool, deconstructivist intention, but I don't think so

Or this:

I think this is the Medieval Times look.

In conclusion: I am no fan of any use of LEVEL THREE of FOUR products or applications unless you are going to clearly apply them like wallpaper and have some fun with it. Hey, how about a brick chair? Or a stone door?

For the LEVEL TWO veneer masonry, let’s either use it in a traditional way – openings would have lintels or soldier courses, the masonry would never hang in the air – or let’s acknowledge its role as merely an exterior protective surface and detail it accordingly.

straight-stacked brick, clear non-structural, but true to its veneer construction