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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Cottages, Communities, Congeniality

There is a certain category of housing in which we use an activity as an adjective with one of the shelter terms we know and love.  Beach house.  Hunter's Cabin.  Fisherman's Shack.  You get the idea. There is a similarity in our expectation of such structures.  Things are simplified.  They tend to be more about the location and activity than about the architecture.  Preconceived notions of formal-informal are thrown out.  People go to such places to kick back, ignore the pressure of social convention and expectation.  Behavior is expected to be more pure, less contrived.  People do what they want to do more than what they have to do. Congeniality rules.

It all sounds like a pretty good idea.  I sense a growing tendency, especially among my younger clients, to take these attitudes more to heart  when designing their primary residence.  Many people seemed more inclined to do things that they can enjoy themselves rather than spending money doing things mainly to impress their peers.  Though I am of an age where I enjoy the public-private aspects of the home, I can appreciate the inclination to get rid of all that and just get down to the good stuff.

One of the sub-groups that fires me up is the golf cottage.  I like these because even while the structure is being pared down, it is doing so to appeal to a group who enjoy an activity which is hopelessly mired in tradition and arcane rules of behavior.  It is seemingly a yoking of entirely opposite expectations:  that is, an informal and simplified lifestyle dedicated to a pursuit of an activity  which requires an intense knowledge of a wide variety of self enforced behaviors during the game, prescribed dress codes, as well as the shot making requirements of the sport.  Strange bedfellows.
        I've had occasion to enjoy a couple of exquisite golf cottages mainly when I was younger, as my father was an avid golfer and family vacations were often scheduled with that in mind.  I'm thinking of the picturesque cottages sprinkled around the Mid- Ocean course in Bermuda. We were fortunate to spend two weeks between Christmas and New Years in a couple of these in the 70's.  I can also recall several nights in a cottage at Eseeola Lodge in Linville, N.C. when I was younger.  These memories are well impressed in my psyche and I'm sure come out in a variety of ways in my design efforts.  There is a different flavor to these golf cottages from other vacation homes I've experienced.  They are not nearly as informal as the beach house, in which  people  run around in bathing suits all day, traipsing in and out from the beach for the occasional beer, sandwich, or nap.  They are not nearly as rustic or purposeful as a hunter's cabin or fisherman's shack.  There is a formality to them, despite their location in a leisure environment.  They usually exist in communities, surrounded by other homes of similar intent.  There was a purpose in their development, usually the entire location and community was contrived from the start to exploit the resident's desire for just such a situation.  It is a very different set of circumstances than the hunters or fishermen, who are more likely to desire isolation and privacy.  It is also different than the shore communities, which can only spring up where there is a happy coincidence of sandy beach and available transportation.

      Golf provided a built in activity perfectly suited for resort development.  It could happen nearly anywhere, which gives developers the chance to acquire ground in the middle of nowhere at a reasonable price.  It attracts clientele of a certain financial status.  The game is not inexpensive and participants have to devote a lot of time to it.  Finally, it is a highly social enterprise, with handicapping systems to allow players of wide variety of talent to compete together.  A perfect setup for community development and a unique housing type.

The grandaddy of golf resort villages is Pinehurst , North Carolina.  It was conceived as a health resort by a Boston soda machine magnate in 1895.  At first it was to gain the benefit of the pine tar smell in the air which was thought to help respiratory disease prevalent in the North East.  But once a golf course was added, Donald Ross was hired to improve it, and the sport of golf enjoyed a boom which swept the country after the turn of the 20th century.  Pinehurst had a couple advantages.  First, being from the Boston area, it was only natural that the developer, Leonard Tufts, would turn to  local Boston  talent  to help with the planning and landscape.  The renowned Olmsted firm put its indelible mark on the project.  Second, he was fortunate to connect with Donald Ross who was newly emigrated from Scotland.  Known as the father of American gold course design, during next 40 years he created more than 400 courses across the country, but always called Pinehurst home.

The concept was a New England town, with a village green, an area of shops, a church, restaurants, and a couple resort hotels.  Cottages of a variety of sizes happily intermingle on comfortably sized lots.  Its all very walkable and intimate, if a little contrived and controlled.  If this formula sounds a little cliched given today's new urbanist mantras, well there really is not much new under the sun.  But what I really want to examine is a couple of the cottages which have come up for sale recently.  Two in particular intrigue me, a 4000 sf two story and a 2000 sf single story.

Despite doubling the size, there are a couple of similarities in concept.  First is the simplicity and purity of form.  There is no attempt to dazzle anyone with turrets, offsets, and gratuitous reverse gables.  The smaller house presents its gable to the street.  The larger house has a long ridge running across and a pavilion on each side , making an H plan.  Pretty simple stuff, with strong axes and enforced symmetry.

Second, there is no effort at using a front porch to provide a place for neighbor interaction and a buffering from the transition of outside to inside.  A delicately covered door leads you directly to the principal living space.  This great room needs to be nuanced subtly to provide a variety of purposes- Entry, circulation, a couple conversation areas, and enough space for the furniture to be placed to allow it all.

These homes were built in the early 1900's so there was no effort to integrate the kitchen into the living space.  Probably in most cases there was a cook to get the food ready anyway.  But if you think about it, a golf community isn't really about cooking.  Playing cards, nineteenth hole drinks, catching up on your reading all seem more important than spending a lot of time preparing food.  Bedrooms are comfortable, but not intended to be an oasis.  The cottage itself is the oasis.  The bedroom is just where you sleep.  Same is true with the baths.  No need for them to be a spa.  The spa is right there at the clubhouse.

These concepts seem  alien to us today.  We have turned our homes into personal spas, barrooms, resorts of one kind or another.  The concept of the house being a simple shelter co-existing with similar structures with shared amenities located nearby has retreated into the distant past.  In my neighborhood there is an old livery building ( a shared garage) where a hundred years ago all the cars were kept.  When it was time to go somewhere, you rang them up, and the car was brought over to the house.  Add in corner grocery stores, milk and eggs brought to your door.  It all seems so civilized.  But now we have 3 car garages to fit in to our plan.  Master bath spas, fabulous foyers as if the house were a embassy.  Our own theaters, our own pools, kitchens made of the finest polished woods, with gleaming surfaces everywhere we look.

Can you see why these simple golf cottages have such appeal?  Garages, if present, are detached.  Foyers nonexistent.  Kitchens simple work spaces.  Baths utilitarian.  Ample sized gathering rooms, large enough for several couples to enjoy cocktails, but not so big to make curling up with a book seem presumptuous.  Bedrooms for sleeping, baths for washing.  Everything right sized.  I find it a noble program for a house.  Very civilized.  Congeniality over conceit.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Okie Influence

Over the years I have been enamored of the work by R Brognard Okie.  He was an architect, active in the period from the early 1900's to the 1940's in suburban Philadelphia.  He worked mainly in a Colonial revival, vernacular Pennsylvania farmhouse style which gained great popularity in this period in the Philadelphia, Main Line suburbs.  In Okie's hands it was far from the cliched mannerisms you might expect.  He managed to inject a light hearted sense of fun, the unexpected twist, as well as some exquisite craftsmanship which defies what otherwise might be a conventional expectation.  In a way, he is a sort of side step from the English Arts and Crafts work of Voysey and Lutyens (whose work he followed closely), to the more formal modernism which took over in the 50's.  It is no accident that he spent a summer interning for William Price, a Philadelphia architect whose work is often seen as one of the main stepping stones to modernism in this country.  He also received commissions on straight Colonial restorations (Betsey Ross house, William Penn's homestead overlooking the Delaware- Pennsbury), but for the most part his work was for clients in the suburbs wanting to create their own Pa. vernacular homestead, colored with a hint of whimsey and craftsmanship as seen in the Arts and Crafts movement.

I've done some Okie style houses in the past, but usually just as projects for my own amusement, magazine articles and such, hoping to lure some clients into enjoying the warmth and interest of his work.  This year, I've done several homes based on some of his projects and had them rendered by Bud Lichtenwalner to help promote the style and look which is so perfectly suited to a home in SouthEast Pennsylvania.  (I'm not so sure it would look right in Florida).  There is a timeless sense of appropriateness that the homes seem to exude to me as a native of the area.  I'm not sure why we so often look to Europe or the South for our inspiration, when our local heritage is so rich.  In any event here are some of the renderings we've had done recently.  At bottom is a proposed addition to my Mom's house done if not in an Okie style, at least in a Pa. vernacular manner which blends with the Colonial revival style of the existing.  It was originally designed by the local firm of Jacoby and Everett in 1937.  Herb Everett was a Penn grad, like Okie, and no doubt was quite familiar with the popular Philadelphia style at the time it was done in the mid 30's.  In a shameless plug, the house is available for sale now (without the addition).  See it here:
Another link to Southbrook Farm is here:
That is the model for the home on the right above.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

2013 update.

A somewhat rambling update is about to occur.  I have a couple things to discuss.  First is a photo of a home recently completed by Monogram custom homes.  I'm not getting around as much these days to snap photos of houses as they progress, but things are moving along.  Monogram won several awards this year at the LVBA's annual gala, two of which have appeared in this blog (no more formal rooms Jan 2010)- a home up to 700k exclusive of land and a home up to 800k, so congrats to him.  Erwin Forrest, another builder whose work has appeared here also won his first award, home up to 400k exclusive of land, the first of many I'm sure. Go to the LVBA website and click on awards, scroll down to Monogram and Erwin Forrest for a peek.

Next thing I want to talk about stems from a trip back to Princeton last fall for the Harvard game.  Haven't been back for a game in many years and greatly enjoyed the new stadium by Raphael Vinoly.  This is just a fabulous place to inhabit and a worthy successor to the iconic Palmer Stadium, on whose site it now stands. .  On this day, The princeton team looked awful during the first half with virtually no offense.  I don't think they had a first down.  As the weather was grand, I decided to walk around the campus and check out the new buildings during the second half, during which the Tiger's rallied to their greatest come from behind victory in their history.  So it goes.  The walk was well worth it none the less.  The Princeton campus is a grand vantage place from which to experience the gamut of American architecture.  From the Georgian colonial refinement of Nassau Hall to the latest Frank Gehry explorations in mass and space, it can all be found right here within easy walking distance.  For the purposes of housing though let me focus on a couple highlights.

Start with John Notman's Prospect Hall.  Notman lived in Philadelphia and was instrumental in introducing Italianate architecture to this country in the mid 1800's.  Think of him as the grandfather of the modditteranean if you wish.  The style should certainly speak to those who favor the tuscan influence popular today.  This one is pretty spectacular with a tower and port cochere.  It became the president's house in the 1870's and was inhabited by Woodrow Wilson during his tenure at Princeton.  To me, what is more interesting in William Platner's 1968 addition to the rear when the building was converted into the faculty club.  Platner is a mid-century modernist who worked in Eero Saarinen's office, and later Roche and Dinkeloo's.  He is famous for his interiors, furniture, and detailing which integrates the entire composition of the building with the interior treatments.  This particular work is not heralded, but if you ever visit, I defy you to find more elegant detailing.  Exquisite!

From Prospect, you can wander through Venturi's post modern Frist Hall, cross Washington Road and gaze to the rear of Robert AM Stern's recent work on the old Campus Club.  Here he was channelling C.F.A. Voysey, one of the pioneer's of modern design working in England in the late 1800's, early 1900's.  This building was panned by the critics, but I find it interesting and appropriate given the context of the Collegiate Gothic setting.  Turn 180 degrees to view the front of Gehry's science library. Hello!  A lively introduction to the back side of the campus.

You want some I.M. Pei, wonder over to Spillman Hall, where the Picasso sculpture "head of woman" has been placed.  The harsh geometry of this dorm complex is made interesting by the diagonal circulation through its core that really has to be experienced to appreciate.

After all this modern and post-modern and deconstructionist stuff, we get back to Demetri Porphyrios and his work on Whitman College.  His "classicism without style" as applied to the Princeton collegiate gothic context has gained some acclaim.  On its own, its an interesting space and an enjoyable design.  Unfortunately, when viewed in the context of the original Cope-Stewardson product, and the Charles Klauder work, it doesn't look as appealing.  Still a great experience, however.  Contrast this work with the Blair Hall archway nearly a century earlier.  The walkway up from the new buildings towards Blair take you through some fabulous courtyards and dorms, largely the work of Charles Klauder, another Philadelphia architect whose firm picked up where Cope-Stewardson left off.  Klauder worked at Cope- Stewardson and Horace Trumbauer's office and became one of the collegiate gothic masters.

Moving back up campus, we move back in time to the Richarsonian Romanesque work of William Potter.  Alexander Hall, Witherspoon dormitory, East Pyne hall, Chancellor library (turned in to the campus pub when I was there in the 70's.  Unbelievable space in which I spent a lot of time.)  One other building worthy of mention are the neo-classic Whig and Clio Hall behind Nassau Hall on Cannon green.  Whig has a post-modern addition by Charles Gwathmey that's worth a visit. Very controversial in its time, it brought Gwathmey to campus often in the mid 70's and he often did guest "crits" in the architecture school.  "Oh my God" he said of one of my projects, "its a Venturi building".

      Anyway, this was the laboratory in which my architectural sensibilities were incubated, for better or worse.  If you are an architectural enthusiast, its well worth a visit.  Which leads me to my next topic.   Seeing all this European influence in the history of the campus, its no wonder I can easily flit from Colonial revival to English Cotswold and back again.  Epernay, a project I have contributed to in a French rustic style has decided to try to sell Florida lifestyle plans which will blend in with the French Cottage theme.  The developer was taken with Dan Sater's plans which most often are drawn with a Mediterranean flavor popular down there.  Dan is a fellow AIBD member, and past president of the organization whose work is widely publicized.  It made sense to me to collaborate with him, rather than try to reinvent a wheel he has already mastered, so his plans have been slightly adapted and new elevations put on to blend in to the village setting which has been put in place.  Here are two of the newly rendered homes which Bud Lichtenwalner has just brought to life.  These are available now in Saucon Valley in the village of Epernay.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Palladio - Rotonda- Universality

I've never been a huge fan of Palladio or his renaissance buddies.  I sat through Michael Grave's lectures; porosity and solidity, additive and subtractive, a little of the old in-out.  This whole focus on arcane numerical relationships, devotion to classic orders, manneristic gestures, none of it really spoke to me in a significant way.  Yet the various romantic revivals, the naturalistic explorations of Wright in all his succession of guises,  the purity and complexity of Corb, the rational reductions of Mies all seemed much more compelling.

Flash forward about 30 years, and the discussions between John Henry and Greg LaVardera in the old CORA forum "modernism vs tradition" forced a second look.  John (see is a master at adapting renaissance ideas to the Florida mansion.  Greg ( is a building science jock whose goal is to bring good affordable modern design to the masses.  Sort of an "Architecture Within Reach".  I find myself swaying in the breeze between these two.  A little of this, a little of that.  I mainly like my designs to look as if they "belong".  Maybe not arresting, but rewarding a second look.

In any event, John got me interested in Palladio a couple years ago and I went on-line and stumbled across a book, "Learning from Palladio" by Branko Mitrovic.  Now this guy has some serious scholastic "cred", Phd from Penn, postdoctoral studies at Harvard, and his book is a rather learned treatise, but highly readable.  Find a used copy on Amazon, its well worth it.  There are discussions of the various relationship values employed, analyses of the various structures, some good photographs, floor plan depictions, even a section on Palladian applications in recent structures.  A good read.

A couple days ago, John mentioned in a forum that a client was thinking about recreating Villa Rotonda, which any architect or home designer will tell you is the iconic Palladian Villa many of us hold in our mental repositories.  John figured about 12,700 s.f. for Rotonda.  Greg chimed in "just another damned mcmansion"  Tongue in cheek, I suggested one could add on a bit by finishing under the porticoes and stairs.  The seed was planted.  What kind of reasonable house could be designed using the parti of Rotonda, but scaled to a standard more attainable by mere mortals?

I started with the plan.  Rotonda has 4 tight passageways leading to the porticoes, with 4 large rooms in the corners and 4 small rooms along the horizontal axis.  I didn't want to work with that, so I adapted and simplified ideas from Trissino and Thiene.  The idea here is 4 square (1 to 1) rooms in the corners, and then a golden sectioned  room in the middle.  What this allows is a variety of spaces, with the large spaces giving access to the porticoes, so the rooms and terraces can be enjoyed along with the views.  The center is now a 1 to 1 core, over which a cylindrical raised dome can be placed.  The next step was to determine the size.  I started with a 14' square.  The golden section indicates a 22 1/2' center space, add walls and you have a 52' square.

The next decision was what to do with the stairs.  Rotonda has 4 sets, arrayed around the center salla.  Too much for my daintier version.  My idea was to do a plan with few redundancies. Stairs would have to go in only 1 quadrant.  I did like the idea of keeping them off to the side, not dominating the plan, but rather adding interest to a portion of the center core.  Next came the chore of identifying uses for the spaces.  Probably not too important in Palladio's time, but an imperative in our more scientific age.  As nature abhors a vacuum, we abhor an unlabeled room.  Here is how things would go in my country home.

Now we have to work on the platform.  I always assumed Rotonda sat on a knoll, sloping off on 4 sides.  Not so.  It is sited mid slope, with a huge built up platform creating a landing for the low side stairs.  Even my reduced version is over 80' front to back with the stairs.  A couple feet of fall is minimum to create drainage, and with the required 4 sets of stairs raising the living level 6-7feet above grade, it was a simple decision to place access to garage storage on the rear.  With tandem parking, and another 2 car storage space, we can fit 6 vehicles, along with a downstairs rec or media room.

The bedroom level is dominated by the gallery ringing the domed core.  4 equal bedrooms with separate closets and baths are in keeping with the universal four sided nature of the plan.  Subtle differences to be sure, but all four basically equal.

The facade produces its own problems.  With the stairs placed in their quadrant, height is limited by the number of 10" treads.  That along with cost expediency suggested 10' 1st floor.  I'm sure I can find an approved relationship to justify this.  10 to 14 is close to the square root of 2, or the diagonal of a square, a common renaissance proportion.  Next come the porticoes.  These have to be simplified.  No way to justify the expense.  4 columns each, max.  Their spacing to suggest the plan relationships.  Their height limited by keeping an egress window sill height above.  Non- palladian concerns to be sure.  I made them 8' deep because any less would be too small. I limited the stairs to the center section only.  See Villa Chiericati.

A word about the golden section.  This proportion ( a is to b as b is to a+b) was known in Palladio's time, but was not used by him, at least on this house.  Scholarship on this was only  popularized in the early 20th century, and then sources retroactively applied.  This proportion is related to the diagonal of a pentagon.  Palladio more liked diagonal of the square, and diagonal of a cube, as related to the side. square root of 2 and square root of 3.  My modern interpretation of Palladio only seems appropriate to use the favored 20th century proportion, so I used the golden section despite Palladio.

Another hesitation is exterior treatment. My inclination is to adopt the stripped down aesthetic seen in many of the villas.  There are couple ways to go here, all with reasonable precedent.  I f I come back to this, I'll flesh something out and update.  Another thing to note is the lack of fireplaces and chimneys.  I'm not sure what they did to ward off the chill in Vicenza, but we will be well air-conditioned and heated, so no worries there.  The usual focal point in the rooms is replaced by glass doors leading out to the porticoes framing the views.
Don't be worried about the 16' scale of the center dome.  Your eye will read the 22-6 rectangular core instead.  The total height is a square root of 3 proportion to this width. (1.73 to 1)  I should also note that in the plan, the narrowed section at the entry is a golden section relationship itself .

So there you have it, Palladio for the masses, stripped down and then pumped back up.  The 14' module delivers spaces of a comfortable and practical size.  But the central sala provides the answer to a question no one is asking in modern home design.  Its vertical core reaching up to the heavens (the dome painted as celestial soffit?).  It serves as an introduction to, and a respite from, the more mundane human activities on the perimeter.  What a way to start and end the day.  Universal design indeed.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Pella expo, new projects

I attended the Pella Expo this week at the Link in Philadelphia. Once again, the highlights of the show for me were the talks by Steve Mouzon. He is the author of a couple books I have enjoyed and in fact often refer to. Check out his original green site if you haven't already. In any event, these talks were full of seemingly obvious one liners that none the less seem fresh enough to bear repeating. Here are a couple:

1) the program is the most oversold thing happening in architecture.
2) no equipment is more efficient than "off"
3) Non-functional shutters, lets call them what they are, screw on do nothings.
4) small is the new luxury. It allows the stuff to be of better quality.
5) the architecture profession is choking on complexity. It needs to simplify, rely more on commodity.
6) The myth of no-maintenance. It doesn't mean it doesn't need to be maintained. It means it can't be maintained. All you can do is rip it off and replace it.
7) self evident operation. The fatter the instruction manual, the shorter the lifespan.
8) the larger the margin of error, the longer it lasts into an uncertain future.

Any one of these deserves its own seminar, but perhaps I'll dive in to a couple of them as the year progresses. Great food for thought. Thanks Steve, and by all means I recommend a visit to his sites and various publications. Good stuff.

In the meantime, the year has started off with increased activity in a couple of areas. I've done projects to sell for the low 200's (a twin development, one side master up, one master down), a million and a half dollar 4800 s.f. home, and a couple projects in between, a 2500 sf master down plan, a 3200 s.f. two story, and a larger two story for a builder to move into and use as a model home. While the larger home is more European in its stylistic leanings, the other plans seem to rely on a more American aesthetic, a sort of vernacular colonial. I'm not sure why, but I suppose it reflects a desire for a more functional, less "look at me" sort of aura that buyers want to express. I've had several requests to delete the dining room, and put a large table space in the kitchen. It's pretty much normal now to put doors on the living room and call it the office. The former study seems to be morphing into a kid's playroom or TV area, or else a 1st floor guest room, if there is space for a full bath.

The twin plan is notable in that the table space was moved right into the kitchen. The kitchen is open to the living space as much as the structure allows.

The other thing that seems to be happening in Pa. is the end of using I-joists on the 1st floor. Our legislature passed a law which eliminated required sprinklers from the code in one and two family dwellings. This comes at the expense of drywalling the basement ceiling if anything less substantial than a 2x10 is used as a floor joist. The problem is that no one has figured out how to treat all the penetrations of the drywall for plumbing drops, electric lines, and especially HVAC ductwork. If one just soffits around the trunk lines and drywalls that, then in essence in the event of a heater fire (most likely location) you've just trapped the flames inside the envelope with the same members you are attempting to protect. Once again, Pa. in its haste to do the right thing quickly has become the industry's guinea pig. This provision is in the 2012 code, which I doubt is actually in use anywhere yet. The I-joist manufacturers are trying to develop spray on flame retardants which are approved rather than drywall, but this is a new industry and hasn't been fully vetted at this point. Another unfunded, untested mandate pushed in to law before its ready. Ironically, this is occurring even as our state government's mechanism for adopting new codes has just announced it would not be adopting any of the 2012 codes, and is looking for a 6 year rather than a 3 year horizon for even considering changes. Hopefully this basement drywall issue will be our state's swan song in leading the country in adopting unproven construction techniques as being required.

So enough of a rant for today. Maybe next month I'll tackle programming in architecture. Is it a booger bear that limits the adaptability and useful lifespan of our buildings, or is it the spark that ignites the process of them getting built in the first place. If it is both, then how should we better reconcile the differences?

Monday, January 16, 2012

2011 in review

I'm reviewing the year and see that despite the wounded state of the housing business, some interesting projects have come my way. Additions, some large homes, some starter homes, in a variety of styles and arrangements. It started out with a playroom addition to an existing home which was being undertaken in conjunction with a pool and deck area. This project by Monogram Custom homes was completed in time to win an award from The builder's association at the end of the year. The photos showing the dramatic pool and swim up bar tend to overshadow the rather modest addition, but it just goes to show what can be done to your backyard. Another addition for a master suite over an existing garage in Bucks County, and a similar project in South Jersey were other concerns in the spring. An interesting project was putting a second floor on a 50 year old ranch house, adding 1400 s.f. over the house and garage. It's just now being finished up. A Sunroom addition to a home built several years ago in Bethlehem was just started and is now being finished up, as is another large custom home by Monogram

On the builder front, there seemed to be a place for spec homes in the 2800 s.f. range which could sell for around 350k. I made a couple of plans for builders who had a bit of success with these. The only other spec which seemed to work was a bilevel on an in fill lot, selling for mid 200's. I posted a photo of this one a couple entries ago. An interesting project, which hasn't sold yet, was for a log sided house in Medford Lakes, NJ- an older community with strict architectural control standards. They wanted an all log home. We started with a proven floor plan and re-did the elevation to give a more rustic appearance. High water table meant no basement, but we added a walk up attic which could be used for storage or a bonus space instead. Thanks to John Haeberle for working with me on this one. Also on the builder front, I did a preliminary plan for an 1800 s.f. single home for one of the builders in town. He needed it to try to add some breadth to the price range of his offerings while maintaining some consistency of value across his product line.

A carry over from last year was finishing plans and marketing information for a local developer of single family homes. These ranged in size from about 2000 to 2800 s.f. with masters both upstairs and downstairs. A couple of each have been sold so far.

On the custom home front, the projects have been varied as well. Erwin Forrest Builders brought me a couple of first floor masters to do, one quite large, over 4000 s.f. with a detached garage as well as an oversized attached garage. This one actually wound up the the 5000 s.f. range. Its in the stage of finals now. The clients are working with Nancy Carroll, an interior designer who I happened to sit next to at the builder awards banquet this year. I'm sure this one will come out spectacularly, perhaps an award winner next year. The other is smaller, closer to 3500 s.f. and has just started to be framed. An interesting plan, it deletes the typical formal dining area, enlarges the nook into a sort of sunroom-dining area open to the kitchen and great room. This idea is coming to me more and more, as the former dining area becomes a study or playroom. The first time I did this was for Hersh Ruhmel in his own house. A great idea whose benefits are being understood by a wider part of the marketplace every year. Greg Harris from Omega homes is adopting it in a plan for his own home being designed now.

On the conventional two story side, I did a plan for a builder in Montgomery County that wound up at 3200 s.f. This has a very efficient envelope, but couldn't be "cookie cutter" (wife's insistence) I used a casual traditional style with some arched features which satisfied them. Slat shutters, vernacular dormers, stucco, stone, and board and batten seem to make this look appeal to both European and Colonial style fans. This plan kept a two story family room and foyer, but I did similar layouts for other homes this year where these favored features of yesterday were deleted in favor of bigger (or more) bedrooms, second floor laundries, or stairs up to finished attics. You pays your money and takes your choice.

What else? Well I did some twins with master down layouts, some upscale twins with 12' ceilings in the family room, elevators, and upstairs master suites. I did some tiki bars and covered pavilions. There was a nice plan for a 2000 s.f. cape cod for a young couple, which could be expanded to 3600 s.f. over time by finishing the basement and over the garage. I drew an as built of an existing kennel, laying out a large open covered area for a dog playground with mounds, tunnels, and a section to make videos for owners to see how much fun their pup might have during the day. Doggie day care to the extreme coming to you soon. There were a couple carriage house/ garage projects. An 1800 s.f. ranch for one of my developers. Working with an architect and a design-build client, there are some cute 4-plex apartments in the works, as well as an 11,000 s.f. funeral home which is meant to have a "house" flavor (hence my involvement). Interesting.

On the awards front, builders were again quite successful with plans I drew. Howard homes won for a spec home selling for 540 k on a 150k lot. This is a nice Colonial plan with good detailing, about 3500s.f. Besides the previously mentioned addition and pool, Monogram Custom Homes also won for a bath remodel as well as an exquisite 1.5 million dollar custom home. Some photos of that are attached. It was designed back in 2009 and there is a blog entry from then with a plan. I was involved with a total of 4 winners this year, 6 last year, 3 the year before, 4 in 2008, 5 in 2007. A total of 6 different builders. It is a great way to get exposure, so give me a call if you want to get involved with a winner. I am now 1st V.P. in LVBA, active in the government affairs committee as well as the business of the board. We are working hard to try and maintain as friendly a business environment as we can in this day of excessive government regulation. This year there have been some substantial wins in this regard, involving sprinklers and the make up and process of the RAC committee which is involved with new code adoption. Supporting the builder's association is a key component in insuring continuing the momentum here.

All in all, it hardly seems like a year which should prompt any complaints. I suppose I'll sign up for another tour.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The appraisal debacle

One of my builders just got an appraisal back on his own house which he has been constructing for the past year or so. Being in the business, and having been very successful, he worked hard to create a home that would last for a considerable time. He started on one of the best lots available in the area, which he acquired at a reasonable cost, the style and layout of the plan is the epitome of what the market here is looking for. He bought it out using freebies from a host of loyal subs who have appreciated his business over the past 15 years. In short, you could hardly do better for a custom home in our area in the year 2011. The appraisal came back nearly 200k less than his cost. Roughly half of what it would sell for even in today's depressed market. What the heck is going on?

It began with the implementation of HVCC (house valuation code of conduct) which was basically a politically generated instrument designed to prevent fake valuations from further infecting the mortgage debacle. As with most hastily conceived reforms, it did a good job accomplishing what it was designed to accomplish, but in many ways, the cure has become worse than the disease. Basically, it has wiped out half the real estate value in the country, and has created a market in which the home building industry has been crippled, both by the inability to create new homes that appraisers can value correctly so as to facilitate mortgages for their customers, but also by giving the customers less capital to invest in a new home to meet the new standards in the mortgage industry.

The Dodd-Frank bill which passed last summer included provisions designed to correct some of the HVCC requirements which so catastrophically affected appraisals. These new guidelines, which were created by a task force consisting of 5 government agencies involved with real estate and consumer lending were complete about a year ago, and after vetting and approvals and whatnot were meant to have gone in to effect last April. They included such reforms as the mortgage makers being allowed to suggest comps to the appraisers, requiring the appraisers to be paid a going rate for their work, and requiring the comps used to recognize short sales and conditions present which adversely affect value. Seems pretty simple and logical doesn't it? I've been waiting for a resulting uptick in values , but as my example shows, it isn't happening. Why not?

Here's one example of the fallout. This is a house which was sold by one of my clients on a lot that he owned. It was a contract to build a home designed for a particular client. In this case, a tile distributor who finished out the inside with tile in nearly every room. This was done outside of the contract. As the house came closer to closing and being finished, it became apparent that it was not going to appraise for what the builder sold it for. The client was unable to complete his financing and eventually had to walk away from the deal, leaving not only his deposit, but a couple hundred thousand dollars of tile work inside. The builder has been unable to sell for what he has in it, and the bank refuses to release any more money to get the house to a point where it is salable. So there it sits for the past couple years. Contrast the example in the same subdivision. A similar product and circumstance. But the builder was able to complete the exterior, had a much easier time making a sale, and the home has been allowed to become a productive part of the community fabric.

Here is one where a builder actually was able to make a little bit of money. A realtor found an infill lot in a relatively decent area, but surrounded by 50 year old homes selling for the upper 100's. The plan was to put in a bilevel, not overwhelm the neighborhood, and watch the costs like a hawk building the thing. It was sold before completion for for the low 200's, allowing around a 30g profit. Looks easy but, a) you have to find the right lot and b) you have to watch your costs. Note this one kept overhead electric service, as the underground would have cost extra.

What has me worried is this economic angst is inevitably going to wind up stifling housing innovation. I have one house underway now where a young man, a single, is the client. His old house burned down, he got a check from the insurance company, and contracted for the house of his dreams, a total party house. The front has a sort of contemporary craftsman flavor, but the inside explodes around a prow to the rear with a deck overlooking a creek and some hills beyond. The master suite is all wide open with a tub in an alcove and a circular stair up to a library-office area. The downstairs is a huge barroom and media room. Not exactly the same program as the other family oriented homes in the neighborhood, but that's what adds interest. The priorities expressed here are not that unusual. The free spirited space allocation is much more in line with what other young people have expressed to me over the past couple years. The economic sanctions expressed by lending institutions are standing in the way of this sort of housing statement, which otherwise could be actively reflecting the lifestyles and choices of today's society.