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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

 

It was a pleasure to be asked to restore this Weston gem, designed by Henry Hoover, one of New England’s modernist pioneers. The interior finishes and systems are being updated while respecting the integrity of the original vision.

 

After graduating from Harvard’s GSD in 1926, Hoover won the Sheldon and Robinson Traveling Fellowship, spending two years in Europe, sketching landscapes and buildings that caught his eye. After returning, he worked for twelve years at Fletcher and Steele, becoming Steele’s draftsman. Known for his fine draftsmanship, he worked on the gardens of Naumkeag. The garden’s iconic stair, shown below, climbs the natural topography.  Hoover focused his residential practice in the Boston suburbs of Lincoln, Wellesley and Weston. His own house was built in 1937, a year before Walter Gropius' own iconic modern house was built.

 

Twenty years passed before Hoover built this home in 1959. His style had grown away from the strict modernism of his early work, and became more integrated with the local climate and landscape. The carport is separated and a full story below the entry to the house. In a nod to Naumkeag, the stairs lead from the carport to the front door exactly following the contours of the land. Only after entering the house and going up more steps does Hoover’s trademark magnificent view emerge, with large windows facing due south. The house appears to rest on the land with little disturbance. Aside from a small terrace to the south, the land has a natural feel with native shrubs and ferns nestled within the stone outcroppings. He also incorporated elements of west coast modernism, like natural wood beams and siding. Strict flat roofs of earlier homes give way to sloped roofs that follow the contour of the land.

 

www.twintravelconcepts.com

 

Written by: Colin Flavin AIA                                                                                                             

Flavin Architects

Ben Wood Studio: Reimaging Shanghai from an American Perspective

 

“What distinguishes our work is the way we try, test and tirelessly network, and our dedication to a value system which is concerned with the tactile sensual qualities of the environment, versus more formal, or academic, or intellectual characteristics.”

Ben Wood

 

 

Historic neighborhoods of Shanghai are falling to the wrecking ball at an alarming rate as vast tracks of real estate are assigned to developers who are putting up mixed-use high rises to accommodate the exodus from rural areas to the city. This has been the fate of the Shikumen, literally “Stone Gate” houses; densely built brick and timber housing arranged along narrow alleys with characteristic arched stone gates, and often with one family to a room, and no heat or running water. The high value of Shanghai real estate and the desperate need for housing makes it uneconomical to maintain them in their current state.

 

Xiantiandi is a two city block area of Shikumen renovated by American Architect Benjamin Wood. He brilliantly understood that maintaining and renovating the relatively low rise Shikumen can add value and charm to a city of steel and glass.  He has brought new uses of restaurants, retail and office to these buildings, creatively carving new pedestrian alleys and reassembling architectural fragments in new and interesting ways.

 

Ben Wood honed his design chops working with Benjamin Thompson, a masterful architect who famously pioneered the revitalization of historic city centers, by bringing retail and dining to downtown neighborhoods that were devoid of street life in the evenings. The iconic renovation of Quincy Market set the stage for the revitalization of downtown Boston in the late 60’s when American cities were being abandoned by residents for the surrounding suburbs.

 

Flavin Architects is proud to have partnered with Ben Wood Studio in the design of a modern home alongside a restored wetland and blueberry farm in Lexington, MA.

 

 

By Colin Flavin AIA, January, 2014

Striking the right balance between an Open Floor Plan and Traditional Rooms

 

 

The Open Floor Plan, where traditional boundaries of kitchen, dining and living rooms are blurred, has been a popular theme in house design since the Second World War. But understanding how open a house should be and how the different uses should relate is more difficult to get right. Part of the answer is individual preference for how we want to live, but since our homes serve us for many years, it’s important to make a house that can adapt to life’s changes. A great design supports our daily routines, ranging from preparing an intimate dinner for two to a party for thirty, and also facilitates the changing seasons of our lives. It’s hard to predict change, but we know change will come and our home designs should adapt and support us through the journey.

 

Relationships Matter: We often think of the importance of getting the kitchen triangle of sink, refrigerator and stove right. A bigger picture triangle exists between the living, dining and kitchen. The three can be lined up in a row, kitchen-dining-living but modern lifestyles are not linear. It’s effective to break up the row and arrange the functions more organically. For example, the kitchen and dining can occupy one end and the living room the other, as in the illustration above.

 

How Open? We all agree on the importance for having privacy for bedrooms, bathrooms and studies, as well as building a buffer between these “quiet” rooms and the “common” areas of the house. Other spaces in the home are more open to debate. The secret is to understand the different activities that take place and what acoustic separation is needed.

 

The Open Kitchen: Traditionally, kitchens were located behind closed doors. Now, even in some restaurants, the best seat in the house is an informal table the chef sets up in the middle of the kitchen. We’ve taken this approach for some of our work, but this is not for everyone. A variation on this theme is to have sliding doors so the kitchen can be closed off during the meal, and a messy kitchen hidden away.

 

Is the Dining Room Extinct? For many, the dining room is rarely used as intended and the primary use winds up being for piling mail on the table. To get more use, dining can be integrated into the flow of the home and designed to be attractive for a range of uses. In George Washington’s Mount Vernon home, not only did he dispense with the dining room, but the dining room table as well. For dinner parties a simple plank of wood was set up on saw horses and then draped with an elegant table cloth. When after dinner dancing commenced, the plank of wood was removed!

 

By Colin Flavin AIA, January, 2014

 

 

Maximizing the versatility of your Phone to Conserve Energy

 

 

The ubiquitous smart phone is finally smart enough to save energy in our homes. Apps coming on the market are disrupting legacy lighting, security, and temperature control systems that have been around for years. Many of us have experienced the frustration of visiting a friend and, faced with several remote controls, not being able to even turn on the TV, let alone record a show. We face the same frustration when attempting to program a thermostat, the result being that all too often, the controls are not being used to their full potential. While smart phone enabled apps for homes are still in their infancy, it’s worth being an early adopter, because you can start improving your home’s performance today. And, one more thing, Flavin Architects’ is an early adopter, with these systems being specified in our client’s homes as well as in our own. Here are some of our favorites on the market right now:

 

Nest Thermostats: Nest Co-founder Tony Fadell was working on his own home in Lake Tahoe, and was frustrated at how unattractive and difficult to use available thermostats were. That led him to design a new thermostat that is connected to a home’s Wi-Fi. Like the iPhone, it is intuitive and easy to use and can be programmed for various schedules. My family uses it to turn down the heat during the night as well as during the day when no one is home. It has an occupancy sensor that automatically adjusts the temperature to accommodate when no one is home. On a monthly basis, Nest sends us a report on our energy performance with suggestions for improvement.

 

Drop Cam: Home security has never been so easy. Rather than hard wiring your home with cameras and sensors, the Drop Cam is wireless. It can be wall or ceiling mounted, or placed on a desk top or counter. The device can act as a home security system, or can become a baby monitor, all accessible from your smart phone.

 

LED Lighting: Lighting is responsible for a large portion of home energy bills and an even larger portion of office energy bills. LED lighting consumes less than 10% of the energy of a typical incandescent bulb. Sounds great, but LED lights are infamous for poor color rendition particularly of skin tones.  Phillips electronics HUE bulb allows the color, brightness to be adjusted from your phone. This allows for a warm flattering light while dining and a bright white light when the guests have gone home and it’s time to clean up.

 

By Colin Flavin AIA, December, 2013

How much should my new home cost?

 

One of the most challenging conversations we have with our client is about budgeting for their new home or renovation. Most of our clients have already purchased a property, or own a home they wish to add to. So in a sense, a portion of the total budget has already been spent. For the cost of construction, friends and family offer advice on how much construction costs. Also resources are readily available on the web. The difficulty is that those giving advice are often quoting cost figures that are measuring different things. For example, is the cost of site work items like a septic system or well included?  What about interior design items like kitchen cabinetry or appliances? Further complicating the decision is that different styles of design (modern vs. traditional) and different building materials (wood shingle vs. asphalt roofing) vary wildly in cost. Geographic location also influences cost. Urban areas like Boston or San Francisco are far more expensive, not only in terms of land costs, but construction costs as well. Budgeting for your home is not rocket science, but it does require a comprehensive approach where the cost factors of site work, complexity of design, and quality of construction are factored in. The three items that follow give a road map of the key determinants of cost for your new home. The complete matrix of costs is available for download on our web site: flavinarchitects.com

 

Site Work: Include all the work needed to prepare the site for a finished home, from excavating the foundation, to bringing in utilities, to landscape work. A relatively flat site with good soils and nearby utility connections is far less expensive to build than a remote site that is steeply pitched and must be regraded, or with underlying rock that must be removed.

 

Complexity of Design: Keep in the geometry of your house simple, with details that are part of your builder’s standard toolbox helps reign in the cost of construction. For example a simple gable roof is economical to frame. Complex and unusual shapes are more expensive, like a design with lots of corners or curving geometry. Remember that time is money, and a complex design, even if built of modest materials, will still be expensive.

 

Understanding the cost versus quality relationship: Higher quality materials translate into more expensive houses. Choose materials that are consistent with your budget. Our chart lists material choices in terms of their cost. In siding for instance, clear finished cedar costs more that painted pine, which in turn costs more than cement plank. Keep in mind that the higher quality material may also be more expensive to maintain. Clear finished wood needs to be refinished on a regular basis, unless a rustic appearance is sought.

 

Getting the most of your site while respecting the land

 

 

No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill.

Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.

Frank Lloyd Wright

 

 

In keeping with their careers in the software industry, our clients created a detailed web site for the house they wished to build. Through images and text it highlighted the desire for a home connected to the outdoors, including a path from the back door to walking trails on the adjacent conservation land. At our first site meeting, we walked the property and the conservation land, observing the steep drop from the house site to Reservoir pond, a remnant of the town’s 19th century for drinking water supply. The challenge was how to be able to see the pond from the house without diminishing the natural beauty of the property, especially as viewed from the pond. An additional challenge: the ground floor of the house was programmed to include an attached two car garage, two bedrooms and living areas totaling 3,000 sf. To top it off there was granite ledge present on the site, making leveling the site prohibitively expensive. Here’s how we did it in a few easy steps

 

Step 1: Break Up the Plan. To fit the house into the land, we needed to see the house as separate volumes that could be separated so they could step down the hill. The garage is placed at the highest level, farthest from the pond and is connected to the house by enclosed stairs that bridge over a small stream that is fed from the runoff from the home’s roof. The bedrooms and kitchen are located in the middle level of the house. The living and media rooms are located at the lowest elevation and nearest the reservoir. This arrangement avoided flattening the site to accommodate the house. The three smaller pieces tuck more gracefully into the contours of the land.

 

Step 2: Varying the Roof Line: The profile of a house against the sky is always important, and especially so for this property. The house can be seen from the walking trails that surround the pond. To keep the house discreet against the skyline, the stepped floor plan allows the roofs to step as well. Further articulation is created by having the second floor cover only about half the first floor, avoiding a massive second floor against the sky.

 

Step 3: Path to the Front Door: From the garden gate located adjacent to the garage, a stone path leads toward the front door, before taking an abrupt turn to pass over a bridge spanning the stream. The path sequence shows off the steeply pitched site and strengthens the experience of the terraced design. The path also highlights some of the design’s sustainable features, including roof runoff being captured in a rain garden to replenish the ground water.

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