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High-Impact Updates for Your Midcentury Facade

Focusing on exterior details can be key to an affordable remodel that allows the original design to shine through

 

Colin Flavin | Houzz Contributor

 

Avoid the temptation to overhaul a midcentury modern home’s entire facade when remodeling or adding on. Not only is doing this a daunting design challenge, but it can also be prohibitively expensive. Instead, remember what attracted you to the house in the first place, and let the original design shine through.

 

Look at the overall composition’s simplicity as an asset, and concentrate on focal points in the facade that will keep your eye interested. Home in on key aspects in the house design that can be updated to give the biggest bang for your buck. When concentrating on these “moments,” it’s OK that most of the house remains a neutral backdrop.

 

Marcus Gleysteen Architects

Mid-Century Modern Redo: Lincoln, MA by Marcus Gleysteen Architects

 

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Sketch of the Courtyard Garden at Ryōan-ji, by Colin Flavin

 

Ever since reading “The Secret Garden” as a child, I have been fascinated by the idea of enclosed gardens. The book, written by Frances Hodgson Burnett, describes the mystery and thrill of entering a walled garden after it being hidden for years. At Flavin Architects, we’ve tried to capture the essence of the walled garden by designing diminutive courtyard gardens in many of our homes.

 

Our design approach is a departure from the classic New England style where the form of the house bears little relationship to the surrounding land. Instead, we favor a floor plan design where the house is laid out into distinct “wings.” for example; the bedroom might be located in a wing that is perpendicular to the main structure of the house. The different wings of the home stretch out into the landscape, coming together to create outdoor spaces that are contained by the house on three sides and are open to nature on the fourth. We love creating this sort of reciprocity between house and land, and witnessing the intimate exterior spaces that the relationship ultimately creates.

 

Japanese Characters written for Colin by a Monk at the Gardens of Ryōan-ji, Japan

 

This approach can often be seen in buildings that have expanded over time. A perfect example of this can be found in the designs of Japanese temples and houses. Over time as a temple complex grew with the addition of new spaces, like a meditation hall, dining or sleeping quarters, these new structures were simply added to the original composition. The resulting outdoor spaces created by these additions are wonderfully serendipitous, coming together to form a range of shapes, sizes and orientation. Rather than being a negative, these leftover spaces are inherently more intimate in scale than the surrounding landscape and provide the garden designer with a creative constraint to make a garden specific to that space. The gardens of Ryōan-ji in Kyoto, Japan, where I visited and made a sketch of the floor plan, are contained by buildings on two sides and garden walls on the other two. Remarkably, the garden designer created a miniature ocean with waves of raked gravel and islands of carefully chosen boulders.

 

Gardens of Ryōan-ji, Japan. Floor plan sketch by Colin Flavin

 

Our approach riffs off this Japanese tradition by creating surprising outdoor courtyards that capture nature. These spaces ultimately take on a different character, depending on the particular site conditions, orientation to the sun, and Owners preferences.

 

We don't suggest one particular style for these gardens, but to let the natural surroundings be the inspiration. For example, when the courtyard is abutting a wetland, a good idea is to go with plants that naturally grow in that environment. Orientation is key to garden design. A north facing garden of ferns, moss and some native shrubs, like azaleas, can be spectacular. A south-facing courtyard has many more options. One of my favorites is a gravel or stone terrace to sit in the sun during the shoulder seasons, the surrounding walls of the courtyard capturing the sun’s rays and blocking the wind. The addition of stepping stones can provide access and a defining structure for the garden.

 

If the courtyard is surrounded by windows that allow the garden to be seen from many vantage points throughout the house, make a garden that looks beautiful year round. The branching structure of many small trees and shrubs are beautiful in the winter, also known as  the “stick season.”

 

The lesson here is to embrace the nontraditional house formation. Thinking outside the box can lead to the creation of beautiful, unique and unexpected spaces. In the words of Burnett, “If you look the right way, you can see the whole world is a garden.”

 

Text by Colin Flavin, AIA
Flavin Architects

5 Midcentury Design Lessons for Modern-Day Living

The era’s simple and economical materials and open, energy-smart floor plans still have relevance today. See why

 

Colin Flavin | Houzz Contributor

 

I have always been enamored of the striking design results that midcentury modern architects were able to achieve. What makes their work so relevant today, though, are the modest budgets and simple materials they often used to get these results. With the steep rise in construction costs for contemporary houses, we need to discover ways to do more with less now more than ever.

 

Halderman/Brooks Eichler by Modern House Architects

Halderman/Brooks Eichler by Modern House Architects

 

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The at home study that architect Glenn Rappaport, Principal of Black Shack Architects, designed for his wife Kelly, a graphic designer, perfectly illustrates author E.F. Schumacher’s concept of “Small is Beautiful.” The room is perched on the south-west corner of the house he designed in the early 1990’s in the old railroad town of Basalt, Colorado. The room measures only 7’ x 7’, making it smaller than most cubicles seen throughout the corporate work place. Sitting in the room, it feels more like the cockpit of an airplane. Everything in the space is in easy reach and there are windows on three sides. The space features a three-sided wrap around work surface, below which are located the printers and office supplies. It's a reminder that good design must consider ergonomics; making things larger can actually make a room less convenient. While the study has no door, it has a screen of bookshelves in its place to maintain privacy and create some order to the inevitable messiness that comes with doing creative work. A small heater keeps the room warm and toasty on a winter’s morning without having to heat the entire house before the rest of the family wakes up.

 

The room looks directly towards Mount Sopris, a beautiful 12,965-foot snow-capped mountain in the area. During a visit this past March, I was fortunate enough to experience the magnificent views from this space in the dawn light. Everything about this view and the ambiance of the office suits Kelly perfectly. Her daily routine places her in her study at 4:00 am, getting in focused design time for her eponymous graphic design firm, Kelly Alford Design. The sunrise on Mount Sopris is her signal that her friends are waiting to accompany her on their daily hike on one of many local mountain trails.

 

Text by Colin Flavin, AIA
Flavin Architects 

 

When choosing the plantings to landscape your home, key considerations will most likely include beauty, functionality, longevity and cost. Why not add environmental sustainability to your priority list? Choosing the right "native" flora goes a long way in promoting a healthy ecosystem around your home.

 

We had a great lesson on plant material selection during a recent visit to a wooded property in New Hampshire. On the property was the foundation of a house that burned to the ground 25 years prior. An old timer who was familiar with the area described the extensive formal gardens that had originally surrounded the house and had been undamaged by the fire. After the misfortune, the property was abandoned and nature took over. Fast forward 25 years and there is almost no sign of the original landscape design. Some evidence remained of the lawn terraces, but otherwise only two plantings from the original gardens remained: a few of the original lilacs and some rhododendrons. In place of the original manicured lawns and formal plantings grew native ferns and river birches, red twig dogwoods and mountain laurel. It was an absolutely beautiful sight to behold. Rather than showing us simply that the original design had failed, the lesson here is to choose plant materials that are beautiful but also thrive in your gardens natural environment.

 

 

Of course, there is beauty in non-native formal gardens and there’s nothing better than a lawn for playing with your kids. But why not just dial back on their use in your landscape design? A small lawn area with good sight lines from the house provides a great play area for kids or a place to lounge in the sun. You’ll save money and improve the natural ambiance. Native planting often suggests a rambling woodland garden in New England or a desert landscape out West, and if you’re a lover of symmetrical formal gardens, this can present a conundrum. Working with the talented landscape architect Stephen Stimson on our Modern Blueberry Farm proved that there is a solution to this perceived dilemma. The outdoor space he created has striking geometric plantings that complement the horizontal lines of the architecture. The design extends the line of the house into the landscape with linear and horizontal plantings. The sense of entry to the home’s front gate is heightened as one passes though layers of clipped hedges. Rather than a privet or boxwood hedge to define the entry, Stimson chose a red twig dogwood pruned to form a hedge. It's a hearty drought tolerant plant that has a beautiful fall berry and winter branching structure. Complementing the dogwood hedge is a geometric planting of cinnamon ferns. A linear planting of New England Maples provide structure and shade to the composition.

 

Try to lean towards what makes sense for the natural surroundings of your outdoor spaces. I guarantee that the final product will be more vibrant and alive than you ever imagined.

 

Text by Colin Flavin, AIA
Flavin Architects 

 

It’s common that our clients want to do right by the environment when designing their new homes. Daily, we are exposed to news of the growing ecological challenges that are so prevalent of our time, making it difficult to decide exactly where we can start to make the biggest impact in fixing the problem. At Flavin Architects, we’ve adopted the philosophy that progress towards a sustainable world can start right at home with tangible improvements to our own surroundings.

 

In this post we’ll review some techniques for improving how storm water is managed on your property.

 

Each site we encounter has its own opportunities to be environmentally mindful. In several recent projects, we had been asked to design a new home or to do a major remodel on the site of a pre-existing home. In the instance of remodeling, we’re ahead of the game from the beginning, since we are adapting a site that has already been altered instead of adding a new footprint to a previously untouched space. Access driveways, gas and water utilities, and septic/sewer are already in place and can be worked with rather than installed from scratch.We always aim to improve the existing site conditions by keeping the updated home within the footprint of the previously existing structure, while also being mindful of environmental conditions that may have previously not been taken into account. For example, a building addition can tread more lightly on the land by being placed on piers instead of a full foundation.

 

 

Buildings and roads are often the greatest offenders behind water runoff and erosion during storms. Not only does runoff damage the soil on your property, the eroded earth can damage downstream properties and wetlands. Thankfully, managing rainwater on your site to decrease runoff and erosion is readily achievable. Standard asphalt driveways are impervious, allowing for rainwater runoff. A good approach if you have an asphalt driveway is to slope the driveway to allow the water to flow into shallow ponds called “rain gardens”. As the name suggests, these can be beautiful with the addition of water loving plants. Rather than using standard asphalt, consider instead a gravel drive that will allow water to soak into the ground, or for a higher price point, you can use “porous paving”, a type of asphalt that allows water to soak through. For parking areas that are only used occasionally, we love “grass block pavers” which allow grass between the concrete pavers. Roof runoff is also a major factor contributing to erosion. Our approach to fixing this is to capture all the roof runoff in gutters and downspouts and then direct this to an underground cistern that allows the storm water to seep back into the ground slowly.

 

Several of our recent projects have the added constraint of being located near wetlands. Our objective for these projects is to assure that the wetland is a more beautiful and productive resource post construction than it was before we arrived. A fair question, of course, is asking whether it would be better to leave the land alone, than to build in the first place. What we’ve found in many cases is that the existing wetland area and surroundings have already been damaged and there is much to be done to improve this environmental resource. The techniques of storm water management that I spoke to above can help a great deal. When an existing home is near a wetland, the plants chosen can immensely improve the wetlands overall function. For example, sloped lawns do a poor job at capturing rainwater. Around the wetlands border, choose to incorporate native species. Here in New England, species including ferns, dogwoods and river birch are ideal for implementing into a wetland landscape. While these may suggest a naturalistic woodland vibe, these plants can also be arranged to convey formal and traditional, or a strikingly modern aesthetic. We’ll dive deeper into landscape design in an upcoming post.

 

 

A special thanks to the Blueberry Farm Design Team:
Ben Wood Studio, Shanghai, China
Stephen Stimson Landscape Architects, Cambridge, MA
Medford Engineering and & Survey, Medford, MA
Eaglebrook Engineering, LLC, Danvers, MA
ReRosa Environmental Consulting, Inc, Ipswich, MA 

 

Text by Colin Flavin, AIA
Flavin Architects 

 

Photo Source:Flavin Architects, Photo by Nat Rea

 

Practicality, function and beauty go hand-in-hand when it comes to Mid-century Modern design. Whether looking at the work of architects like Richard Neutra or Henry Hoover, or designers like George Nelson, it is evident that their work is tied together by this common thread. And it makes sense. During the post-war era, when commercialism was booming and the country was recovering from war-time austerity, modernists were not only introduced to an abundance of new, highly developed materials. They also had to consider affordability and restraint in their work and designs to appeal to the growing middle class. Because of this, it was typical of the time to see military materials incorporated into domestic products. There was a lot of it, and it was affordable. 

 

We recently saw an example of this in a client’s home. Our clients chose to use a George Nelson “Saucer” Bubble Lamp to hang over their dining room table. The lamps rich history made it a perfect fit with the history of their own home, which was originally designed by architect Henry Hoover. This house, which was updated to better fit the client’s needs (for the full story, see our blog post Sculpted to the Land: Restoring a Henry Hoover Masterpiece), is also a typical example of the design intrinsic to the post-war era.  The home features the use of raw aluminum, a material that was popularized after World War II. As a nod to the original design, our clients decided to use raw aluminum for all of the updated finishes. Like Nelson’s Bubble Lamp, this home represents a 20th century design movement that still speaks to today.

 

Photo Sources: (Left) www.eclectictrends.com, Studio Pepe for Spotti; (Right) www.obsessilicious.com 

 

George Nelson is known as one of the founding fathers of American Modernism. His Bubble Lamp, originally designed in 1947, was inspired by a Swedish hanging lamp made of hand sewn silk that he thought would be perfect for his office space. “The Swedish design was done in a silk covering that was very difficult to make; they had to cut gores and sew them onto a wire frame. But I wanted one badly.” wrote Nelson in his book, On Design, published in 1979 (www.hermanmiller.com). Enamored by the style, but dissuaded by the steep cost, he set out to create his own. After seeing a photo in the New York Times of a Liberty Ship being “mothballed” with netting and then sprayed with a self-webbing plastic created for military use, Nelson tracked down the manufacturer and the original George Nelson Bubble Lamp was born. What Nelson created was a beautiful sculpture with a true function-to illuminate the spaces one occupies.

 

One of the wonderful things about Nelson’s work, as well as that of other architects, landscape, and furniture designers of his era, is the timeless simplicity of his designs. It’s an aesthetic that never goes out of style. Elegant, understated, whimsical and fun, there is something about Nelson’s design that really brings a space—whether traditional or contemporary—to life.

 

Text by Alejandra Bennett, Studio Manager
Flavin Architects

 

Image 1, hand drawn elevation and cross section

 

For an architect, there is almost nothing more thrilling than the rush experienced when seeing what was once a 2 dimensional sketch become a tangible, built space. The only thing to top this is seeing our client’s excitement as their home emerges from the drawing table. The first drawings our firm makes are traditional, hand-drawn architectural plans, as shown above (Image 1). With years of schooling, an architect is trained to easily visualize the dimensions of a space even when presented in a 2D format; this typically doesn’t come as second nature to most clients. We make sure the client gets the most out of the process by turning the initial sketches into hand drawn perspective sketches (Image 2). Those sketches give a good idea of the home and once the general outline is agreed upon, we model the home with a 3D program called Sketchup. With the use of Sketchup we can lead the client on a virtual 3D tour of their home while thoroughly and clearly conveying our own thought process and intentions for the project. 

 

Image 2, hand drawn perspective

 

Sketchup continually proves to be a useful tool for our clients to understand and visualize the spaces, both interior and exterior, of the home that is being designed for them. In this particular rendering, shown below, we illustrate how natural light will enter the space in a way that would be difficult to capture through hand drawn perspective. As the viewer, you truly have a sense of the open spaces and the lightness created by the use of glass and the pitched ceiling. In addition, it allows us to further highlight the dimensions of the space by placing furniture into the 3D image. With Sketchup, we have an interactive platform where the client can familiarize themselves with the spatial conditions and better understand the complexity of the design. Of course, this is just one of the many steps in getting from the drawing table to the finished product, but it’s an invaluable tool for making sure the client can envision, interact, and take part in the creation of what will eventually be their home. 

 

Image 3, interior sketchup rendering

 

Text by Alejandra Bennett, Studio Manager
Flavin Architects

 

We're often asked why, with abundant opportunities to design new houses, we take on renovation projects. To us, the answer is simple: we learn so much from mid-century modern homes. They allow us to continue to improve our own skill set and grow as designers.  

 

Recently, we had clients who asked for our help in restoring one of architect Henry Hoover’s greatest projects in Weston, MA. The home, built in 1958 for Kenneth and Polly Germeshausen, was designed relatively late in his career after he had absorbed many influences, including mid-century California design and style. In this house, he took a softer approach than he had with earlier houses. This can be seen in the gable roof and extensive use of California redwood and Douglas fir with a natural finish both inside and out. This is a wonderful contrast to his earlier work and that of other modernists, like Walter Gropius, whose houses can feel cold and harsh. He also paid careful attention to orienting the large window to catch the winter sun, with generous overhangs to keep the bright summer sun out.

 

Aside from the usual wear and tear that comes with time, this house also had some major imperfections that needed to be addressed. Fortunately, our clients had lived in the house long enough to appreciate its unique beauty. They saw the importance of preserving the original aesthetics while acknowledging the need for some updates to fit the home to their needs and make it a more comfortable space to live in. The floor of the original house was poured concrete slab on grade with no vapor barrier or insulation below. This made the house not only expensive to heat, but even when the indoor heating system was turned on, the radiant cold from the floors made the house uncomfortable. Ready to take on the challenge, we only saw one way to solve this problem:  remove the existing tile floor and associated mortar bed and put down rigid insulation, new radiant heat, and stone floor. At the recommendation of our client, we topped the concrete floors with 12” x 24” mottled purple and green slate from Vermont Structural Slate, which beautifully complements the warm tones of the wood and the green tile installed in the dining room 6 years prior, but also radiates the heat from the floor slabs. The bathrooms needed work too, and what could be better than poured concrete counters, chosen by the client and sourced from Stone Soup Concrete in Easthampton, MA, complemented with authentic mid-century tile? The tiles, created by the Heath Ceramics Company (founded in the 1950’s), have a beautifully crafted appearance. Each tile is hand glazed, giving each a slight variation. The unique quality of these ceramic pieces gave the home a very personal touch. In addition, all of the original window frames for the house were original custom made Douglas fir, with aluminum casement sash. It was also the client’s idea to work with raw aluminum for all of the finishes in order to stay with, and respect, the materials used in the original design of the home. Raw aluminum became popular after WWII, as designers took advantage of the wartime aircraft industry's need to convert to the consumer market. The aluminum windows, along with cabinet and door hardware, share the same raw aluminum finish. The windows were sent to be dipped in solvent to remove 50 years of grime and the original unfinished aluminum pulls were used for the cabinets and closet doors. All interior woodwork was stripped and then an oil-rubbed finish was applied to bring out the natural warmth of the wood.

 

Mission accomplished! A gem of a house is beautifully restored, with updated finishes that respect the original design. The client’s great taste, dedication to the process and appreciation of the original materials, design, and aesthetic make this home a truly beautiful and personal space. To live in the house now is so comfortable with the winter sun shining in; it is truly "architecture of the well tuned environment."

 

Text by Colin Flavin, AIA
Flavin Architects

 

 

 

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

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