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.



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.



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


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.


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