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For those of us who are fans of mid-century design, we are fortunate to live at a time when home owners not only respect this style, but actively look to it for inspiration for their own spaces. Recently we had clients who, new to the area from France, spent several months searching for a mid-century home in Andover, a suburb just north of Boston. They were lucky to find this house designed in 1952 by architect William Hajjar. Hajjar, who received his masters degree in architecture from MIT and later became professor of architecture at Penn State University, was known primarily for his contemporary architectural vision that challenged the conservative style that dominated the State College community during the 1950’s and 1960’s. During his tenure at Penn State, he designed over 30 contemporary houses and buildings in the area, completely transforming the landscape from traditional to modern ranch-style homes primarily seen out West. His design aesthetic can be linked to that of Walter Gropius and Frank Lloyd Wright.

 

The original house designed by Hajjar in Andover stays true to his style. He liked to site his homes into hill sides with the garage discretely tucked under the house and into the hill slope. Another signature design move is to locate an entry hidden from the street at mid level. In this particular home, a curved path leads up to a door that is tucked away on the side of the house. It is clear that he loved for his homes to connect to the natural landscape. He extended the beautifully laid concrete block walls beyond the boundary of the house and into the landscape to hold back the sloping land and form outdoor patios and stairs. He also knew how to design a durable building. Almost 70 years after the original house was built, the concrete block retaining walls have not buckled under the harsh New England winters.

 

Our design challenge: How do you add a second floor to this classic single story ranch without overwhelming the original Hajjar design? We respected the foundation of the original house by extruding the volume of the living and dining rooms to create a second floor. The original chimney, built of honed blue-stone, became the armature for the new stair to reach the second floor master bathroom suite. We also extended Hajjar’s curtain wall façade from the first floor to the new second floor. The strongly graphic black and white color scheme was incorporated into the addition; the second floor is clad in charcoal vertical siding and appears to float over the white concrete block of the first floor.

 

A note for Frank Lloyd Wright aficionados: While not many of us associate the modest "Ranch" house with Wright, he designed his first "Usonian" house for Herbert and Katherine Jacobs (a house commonly known as Jacobs 1) in 1936. This was a highly innovative house with its one story layout, low slope roof, concrete slab on grade, and large windows overlooking the rear yard, all features not only later incorporated in the typical Ranch house, but also apparent in William Hajjar’s designs. 

 

Text by Colin Flavin, AIA
Flavin Architects

 

Robert Coolidge practiced architecture in Connecticut, but he came up north to Lincoln, MA in 1955 to design the Tabor Hill home for his friend Polly Brown. Recently, we were fortunate enough to have a client who loved the bones of this house, and with a deft touch we embarked on designing the renovation of the primary spaces of this gem. What the client needed was a transformation that would fit their family’s needs. In particular, the tiny galley kitchen would not work for this couple and their two young children. Our approach was to channel Coolidge’s design instincts and create a renovation that both respected the integrity of the house and produced the kind of spaces he might have designed if he’d had access to the modern materials that we have today. Our first move in achieving this was to minimize the separation between the kitchen and dining room by making the upper cabinets appear to “float” free by not touching the beam above or the counter below. With this we achieved an uninterrupted view through the cabinets, so that someone at the kitchen sink would be able to enjoy the view out onto the Cambridge Reservoir. The original house included indirect lighting, and we built on that idea, adding indirect lighting to the kitchen work areas.

 

Coolidge received his master’s degree from Harvard in the 1940’s and later taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, so he likely would not have been surprised to find the small town of Lincoln to be a hot bed of modern house design. In fact, almost all of the 1952 Tabor Hill Road subdivision’s 12 house lots were built out with modern homes, including 6 by the renowned local modernist Henry Hoover. Walter Gropius, a contemporary of Coolidge and Hoover and the founder of the German Bauhaus, came to teach at Harvard in 1937 and built a modern house masterpiece for his family in Lincoln in 1938. This house has been widely credited as being the first modern house in New England, but in reality, the construction of Henry Hoover’s own home in Lincoln began in 1937, a year before Gropius broke ground.

 

Gropius and Coolidge overlapped at Harvard, so he certainly would have been familiar with Gropius’ work. Similar to Gropius’ style, Coolidge adapted some traditional New England building materials in his designs, including wood clapboard siding, rustic fieldstone walls and slate flooring. Coolidge was also inspired by Hoover’s sensitive approach to the site. One can see this with the Tabor Hill home, where Coolidge masterfully incorporated the naturally steep south facing hill to create a retaining wall that extends effortlessly from the terraced patios to form a separation between the lower living room and the kitchen/dining area. In addition, he avoided the mistake of many early modern houses, where the architect’s love of windows made the houses difficult to heat in winter and insufferably hot in summer. The Tabor Hill home is carefully oriented to capture the warmth of the winter sun, with generous overhangs to protect from the summer’s heat.

 

Averse to defining his work within the confines of “Modernism,” Coolidge preferred to refer to his work as “Contemporary." I believe he was right in doing so. Coolidge’s work moves beyond the strict doctrines of modern design, where rigid geometry and flat roofs prevail. The central concept of the Tabor Hill home is a symmetrical gabled roof, with prominent beams for support. This recalls the “Ranch” house style widely seen in the 1950’s. It’s possible that he was influenced by design trends on the West Coast at the time, including the builder Joseph Eichler’s gabled homes in California.

 

It’s also safe to say that Robert Coolidge continues to inspire architectural design to this day. 

 

Text by Colin Flavin, AIA

Flavin Architects

 

Brian Hemingway’s architecture is deeply rooted in the West Coast environment, where thickly forested mountains slope steeply to the ocean. From this he has distilled a refined palette of materials: Douglas fir timbers and stone. A residential architect from Vancouver, Brian’s homes have remarkably few walls, with glass infilling between the timber post and beam frames, allowing a minimum of artifice separating the inside from nature. Wooden post and beam design is central to his work, but these are no rustic log cabins, but highly refined, temple-like structures, with precise beams resting on perfectly square 12” posts of exquisitely finished douglas fir.

 

I had the good fortune of working with Brian during a four-year period while we collaborated on the design of a house in New England. Our client had discovered his work, featured on the cover of Robb Report, and asked us to work together, Brian Hemingway as the Design Architect and my firm, Flavin Architects, as the Architect of Record. He has been a generous mentor to me, showing by example how the spiritual realm can be brought into design. Just as Frank Lloyd Wright thought of Louis Sullivan as his “Lieber Meister” (Dear Master in German), I think of Brian the same way. Perhaps my fondest recollection was sitting in Brian’s West Vancouver studio, where he and his precise German émigré draftsman Fred, gave me drawing assignments to learn their distinctive approach to detailing wood structures that carries through from the exposed timber framing to the filigree detailing of custom light fixtures. I also suspect they wanted to learn if I were up to the task.

 

Brian’s work reflects his other great interest, comparative religion. He thinks of his homes as symbols of life’s journey. From the front gate, we are on a path leaving the daily mundane world behind and experiencing a series of layers that Brian describes as almost like chakras. Placed along the entry path of many of his homes is a shallow pebble bottom pool that laps at the building and represents the emergence of life. The interior of the home is organized around a great chimney along with kitchen and living areas that represent the heart of the home. Deepest inside are quiet contemplative layers of the home, including bedrooms and study. The final layer, Nirvana, cannot be reached inside the home, but is found in nature beyond as the waves lapping on the shore or the sun setting over distant islands.

 

These words may sound a bit intellectually vague, but the reality of his work is anything but.  He works methodically, starting with plan layouts that adhere strictly to a module or grid, often in two or three foot increments, instilling a rigor to the work. He describes the repetition of the module, for example locating all columns in multiples of the two foot dimension, as kind of the bass rhythm that that provides structure for later decisions. This rhythm whereby large and small design decisions are united brings a harmony to Brian’s houses that resonates as a feeling of well-being.

 

Text by Colin Flavin AIA

Flavin Architects

 

Modern design can be expensive. The large open spaces, floor to ceiling windows and high end finishes typical of modern design all contribute to modern designs being more expensive than conventional designs. Here are our guidelines for keeping costs under control:

 

Size Matters 

Design for daily use, and don't let the exceptional once-a-year gathering drive the design. Let uses overlap, combining the kitchen, dining and living rooms for example, to create open flowing space. On the other hand, too small does not always save cost: A bathroom with the same fixtures and finishes is not half as expensive when made half the size; in fact it may be more expensive as it is too small, it is more difficult for workers to install the finishes. High ceilings can add great style and proportion, but also add to the homes volume. Going from an 8 foot to a 10 foot ceiling adds 25% to the wall and window area and requires additional structural support to make the house stable. Avoid large open spaces; they are expensive to build and heat. Consider using maximum room sizes of 16 feet so standard framing materials can be used.

 

Redundancy

Avoid redundant rooms, such as en-suite bathrooms. Have one guest bath to share for every two or three bedrooms. Halls add space so instead have rooms flow from one to another.

 

Windows and doors

Glazed openings, windows and doors are more expensive than solid walls. Prioritize windows facing south, and limit windows facing north. Construction costs are limited in the beginning and energy is saved through the whole lifecycle of the house. Keep windows to 25% of the wall area. A good value are windows made of wood and clad in painted aluminum on the exterior as supplied from one of several reputable manufacturers.

 

Degree of difficulty

Consult with local builders during design and understand their go-to finishes and construction techniques. Approaches that are unique to the builder take more time. Precision, trim, such as recessed baseboard and trim can be elegant but cost a premium.

Flat roofs with internal roof drains are expensive. It is better to gently slope the roof to one side with conventional downspouts.

 

Materials

There has been tremendous innovation in porcelain tile. It is both economical and highly durable. Keep it natural: flooring is beautiful in its natural state. Avoid costly custom stains.

 

Building Systems

The most economical heating and cooling is to have a standard furnace with ducted air distribution. Wood frame construction is industry standard and is far and away the most economical, as opposed to masonry or steel. Wood framing is also highly adaptable to accommodating electrical, plumbing and other basic services.

 

Text by Colin Flavin AIA

Flavin Architects

Sculpture by Richard Serra                                                                                              Pavilion by Jonathan Muecke

 

It was great to grab some sun and see the 10th annual Design Miami show, sister to the more famous Art Basel that runs concurrently each year. The first thing to catch my eye was the temporary entry pavilion to the design show, designed by emerging Minneapolis designer Jonathan Muecke.  Muecke takes a light hearted interpretation on the steel arcs of sculptor Richard Serra. Where Serra’s arcs are monumental and often somber challenging our perception of space, Muecke’s work takes a less confrontational direction. Two arcs form a clear portal for the entry to the pavilion. The primary colors of blue and yellow on the outside of the arcs are playful and light against the sunny Miami sky. Inside the portal, complementary colors of red and green are a soothing back drop to bench seating.

 

The show balances commercial furniture showrooms stocked with custom furnishings, with design lectures, this year focusing on the affordability crisis in housing. The juxtaposition of these topics shows the fault lines in the profession, providing designs for the affluent while trying to accommodate the needs of the community at large.

 

Jacques Lacoste showroom at Design Miami 

 

Photos and text by Colin Flavin AIA

Flavin Architects

Wilderness is the raw material out of which man has hammered the artifact called civilization.

Aldo Leopold, A County Almanac

                            

                                                                                                                                                    Mark Mills, Architect

 

As an aspiring architect in the 1970’s on the Monterey Peninsula, I had the opportunity to meet Mark Mills and see his drawings. I was expecting rendered perspectives in the style of RM Schindler or Richard Neutra, both of whom also formerly worked with Frank Lloyd Wright. Not a chance. Mills’ pencil drawings were of pure organic forms, small in size and almost engraved into the paper from re-working and testing out ideas. These were not a typical architect’s renderings to impress a client.

 

Wright often wrote of the beauty of natural forms. Mills’ work embodies these forms. Mark Mills and Paulo Soleri were friends while apprenticing together at Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship.  When they left Taliesin, they joined forces to design a house in the Arizona desert. They only worked together on one house, but its distinctive dome geometry connects back to Wright’s idea of using shells as inspiration. When Mills moved to the rugged California coast, his work became even more organic, using his engineering background to craft innovative house structures of concrete and wood in ways Wright never would have dreamed.

 

The Fan Shell house pictured above is built of five vaults radiating from a center, not unlike the Shell sign it is rumored the client asked Mills to adapt to a house design. The concrete vaults create a unified shape that seems to float over and connect the five spaces defined by the shell. The vaulted roof nestles into the site, making a modest profile against the sand dunes. Inside the house, the vaults have a dramatic effect, where the spring point of the vaults is barely high enough to pass under. One can’t help but contrast Mills work with that of Frank Gehry’s exuberant forms. Gehry starts with whimsical shapes and then has engineers devise a (hidden) structural system of steel to support it. Mills takes a very different approach, where the structural system is an integral part of the form. For the Fan Shell house, the shell shape is a structural concrete vault. There is no hidden structural support. What you see (and experience) is what you get.

 

                                                                                                                                                                    Mark Mills, Architect

Photos and text by Colin Flavin AIA

Flavin Architects

                                                   

 

Modernism week through the eyes of a New England architect.

 

Donald Wexler-Camino Norte House

 

Attending Modernism Week earlier this year was a humbling experience for a New England architect. If the February sunshine were not enough to make me green with envy, block after block of beautifully maintained mid-century modern homes did the trick. It wasn’t only the benevolent climate of Southern California that allowed modern design to thrive. A number of factors came together in Southern California to bring modernism to such a peak.

 

Neutra and Schindler, Two giants of 20th century modernism emigrated from Austria in the early part of that century and both started out in Southern California working with Frank Lloyd Wright, but their brand of cutting edge design came into conflict with Wright’s more romantic vision. They went their separate ways and Neutra went to build his acclaimed Kauffman Desert House in Palm Springs in 1946.

 

There was a friendly competition between the half dozen modernists working in Palm Springs. While developing their individual styles, they pushed one another to better and more innovative designs, often taking inspiration from the regions burgeoning aerospace industry. The Palm Springs Architect Donald Wexler, who designed the house illustrated above, embodies the Palm Springs modernist spirit. The strict geometry with planes of painted masonry and wood siding provide a neutral canvas for the zen-like desert gardens of exposed bedrock, raked gravel and native shrubs. The planes of glass almost totally disappear, giving the forms of the home a pavilion-like simplicity.

 

Local builders excelled at this new vernacular of flat roofs, slender steel columns and aluminum window sashes. Builders often custom made these components before manufactured versions were developed, allowing whole neighborhoods of modern houses to be built relatively inexpensively.

 

 
   
 

 

Photos and text by Colin Flavin AIA

Flavin Architects

 

 

Heather’s previous blog post Working with Sketchup, discussed how architects are able to make realistic 3-D computer models, allowing clients are to be part of the process by making changes in real time. Why then are traditional wood models, that take hours and hours to build, still an integral part of our design process here at Flavin Architects? Here are a few advantages of physical models:

 

Conceptual Design:  Models made of easy to cut foam core are a great way to design intuitively.  Ideas come to mind, and can be cut and changed without elaborate coding, like a sculptor working in clay, where ideas form as you’re working. Computers are great for developing a design, but are rarely helpful to develop initial ideas. A breakthrough can often occur while simply putting two pieces of material together.

 

Design Understanding: One of our biggest challenges is not surprising our clients or contractors as the design is being built. Better than any drawing by hand or computer, a physical model allows our clients to completely understand a design before having to commit. While making the model, we encounter some of the same challenges our contractors run into. This leads to design refinements that improve the overall design and constructability.

 

Close In Design:We constructed a physical model of the roof framing illustrated below to confirm that the conceptual design is feasible. We designed the concept of a folded roof, almost like Japanese Origami. Working with our structural engineer, Siegel Associates, the concept became a fully resolved structural design with steel beams and rough sawn timbers. Stay tuned for images of the completed project by following us on facebook.

 

 

Written by Colin Flavin AIA

Flavin Architects

 

Sketchup has become a successful medium for us to present our ideas to the client. Within the program, the client is able to see and comprehend the proposed spatial  arrangement from all angles by taking a 'virtual tour'. We have found that bringing Sketchup into our meetings has made the process of presenting to our client more interactive. We have also found this to be a tool that the whole family can enjoy.

 

We recently had a meeting with our clients, who brought along their young son, to share with them our preliminary design for a 'pop-the-top' addition. The new second floor level became their master suite to include an office with walk-out deck, bedroom, walk-in closet, and bath.  After presenting our proposed design, the couple inquired about stacking another 4-unit picture window above the existing 4-unit picture window to create a two-story 'bay window'. We were able to make the modification in real-time by simply pushing and pulling the form in Sketchup. As a result, it kept the conversation moving forward towards an approved design. If you look at the rendering below, the two-story bay was a conceptual idea that turned out to be a successful move by bringing in more natural like to both the second and first floor spaces. 

 

 

In addition to being a presentation medium, in our studio, we use Sketchup as a design tool in developing different conceptual ideas as well as working through complex spatial conditions. We found that the software, when compared to other 3D modeling programs, was minimalistic in content however more intuitive and relatively easy for one to master. We are able to efficiently create a form within the program, which affords us the time and energy to delve into the study of different conditions. When all options have been explored, the approved concept can be further developed and then detailed in the construction document phase using a CAD based program.

 

Written By: Heather Souza

Flavin Architects

Creating value in your Home Renovation

 

Clients often ask for advice on what makes sense financially as they consider their home-improvement projects. Much has been written on the types of projects with the best return on investment. However, in the short term, even for those projects with the highest return, only a percentage of the investment can be recouped. A master bedroom expansion into attic space has the highest return at 73%, followed by kitchen remodels at 66% and bathrooms at 62%. On the other hand, a home office or sunroom will only return about 45%.  While these statistics are helpful, there are a number of other guidelines for home renovations that we have learned over the last 20 years. We call these the “Flavin Factors”.

 

Don't fight the house: Renovate a home you fundamentally like. It helps to respect the house's basic design, as wholesale changes are always expensive. If your preference is for an interior with an open floor plan, find a mid-century modern house to work on, not a colonial with small rooms.  Tearing out a good quality room and replacing it with one of better quality removes value before value is added back.

 

What’s Missing: Add value to your home by adding on missing rooms that you would appreciate and a future buyer values. Also bring substandard rooms up to par with the overall quality of the home. In the addition pictured above, we added a sunny breakfast nook to a home that already had a beautiful kitchen, but no comfortable place to eat. This is a “win-win” because it makes the home more valuable as well as being a pleasure to live in.

 

Avoid “Tweaking”: Small additions, like only adding a few feet to a room, are not cost-effective. A narrow addition has a higher proportion of costly exterior wall and roof area. On the other hand, adding a new room or wing makes a fundamental improvement to the house and is more economical to build.

 

Convert unused space: A space that is currently unused, like an attic, can be converted to usable space without the need for adding expensive “footprint” to the house. For my own house, dormers were added to the attic to make a master bedroom and bathroom addition, enhancing the homes value by adding a feature that potential buyers value.

 

Written by: Colin Flavin AIA

Flavin Architects

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