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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.