Open up any design magazine. From Better Homes and Gardens to Dwell, you'll be presented with what editors think are good buildings. While some of their choices will be awful, they will always be presented as good. But where's the love for the bad buildings? The truly atrocious? Those with confused architectural styles? The big ugly mansions? The downright ugly? What can we learn from the big, expensive mistakes of others? Mistakes that we all see every day?
This week I thought I'd have some fun and talk about common problems I see in building design. My focus here is residential architecture, but the same principals apply to commercial and institutional buildings as well.
1) POOR CONCEPT
Building projects can fail for a variety of reasons, starting at the conceptual phase. Some ideas and some sites are simply not practical for custom homes. One of my favorites is the good old geodesic dome home concept. It was pioneered by Buckminster Fuller in the 1950ies. It caught on like wildfire in the 1960ies with hippies and others seeking alternative lifestyles and dwellings. Fuller's chief selling point was the fact these dwellings were efficient and lightweight. Sounds good, right? Ok, now ask yourself why a house needs to be lightweight. So it can blow away? So its owner can pick it up and move it? This is an example of a solution looking for a problem. Houses need to be substantial. They need to give a sense of permanent shelter and refuge. There were other problems with these dome houses. They had a lot of seams that needed waterproofing, so inevitably, they leaked. They are round. This creates problems with furnishing, and leaves lots of awkward leftover space. While they are efficient from a structural engineering standpoint, they are a disaster architecturally.
2) ILL ADVISED
This category of bad ideas is similar to the ill conceived. It differs in one respect: The concept behind a home can be magnificent, but building it still a bad idea. I once had a client who had a great idea for her home – she wanted something simple and modern. Unfortunately the site she selected (and purchased before consulting with me) was located in an extremely restrictive zoning area of Los Angeles. It was a steep hillside, which triggered one set of zoning restrictions. It was also in a “specific plan” area of the city, which added even more restrictions. I was able to work around all of the restrictions, but the regulations drove the cost of the home up considerably. I wish the owner had retained my services during her search for suitable properties. I could have done a code analysis and advised her on site selection. This would have saved her a lot of money.
3) POORLY EXECUTED
When building a home it is important to hire a good general contractor. You must make sure their work is done in strict conformance to the working drawings and specifications. Often called “blueprints” by laypeople. Some owners try to save money by not hiring an architect. This can lead to shoddy work by contractors. Usually, this happens inadvertently....but not always. Sometimes unscrupulous contractors substitute inferior materials. Some employ unskilled labor, resulting in poorly assembled structures. This might not be obvious to the owner until a year or two later, when the roof starts leaking, walls start cracking, or doors start jamming. By then its too late. Fixing poor construction after the building is complete is extremely difficult and expensive. Owners usually have to sue contractors to fix such problems. Once lawyers get involved, everybody loses. Except of course the lawyers. An architect will make sure you get what you pay for during construction. Architects insure construction follows the drawings and specifications. Payment requests from the contractor are submitted to the architect. The architect then visits the site and makes sure the work is complete and satisfactory. Only then does the architect recommend payment to the contractor. This provides quality control for the owner. It gives them financial leverage for getting substandard work fixed by the contractor.
4) TOO BIG
Too often owners seek to maximize square footage rather than the quality of their building. Home sizes have been growing for decades – with no good reason. Large homes are environmentally destructive. They require more building materials to construct. They require more energy to heat and cool. More finish materials and furniture. Studies have also found that large homes tend to reduce contact between family members. That can be bad for relationships. Really large homes can also disrupt the character of the neighborhood in which they are located. This was such a problem in Santa Monica on Montana Street that the city passed an ordinance. It restricted the ability of owners to combine lots and tear down smaller existing homes. Manhattan Beach enacted a similar ordinance for the strand a few years back. The over-scaling design approach is driven largely by real-estate values. The perception is that bigger is better. It is a financial / speculative mindset rather than a quality mindset. Taken to extremes, it can ruin neighborhoods and actually drive down property values.
Ah yes – Stucco – that ubiquitous Southern California exterior building material. Its use really took off in the 1960ies and 70ies with the advent of high pressure pneumatic application technology. It's chief benefit is its cheapness. Contractors could just spray it on. The color was mixed in, and it required little finishing. Unlike plaster, its application could be accomplished largely by unskilled laborers. Its use spread like a bad rash. So what's the problem? Well, for starters, it has a nasty tendency to crack and stain. The material is ugly, but well handled and finished it can be useful. Too often though, it results in a beige nightmare building exteriors. There are many alternative siding materials. Prefabricated insulating panels, reclaimed wood siding, and composite metal panels are available. Metal can be an attractive material if handled well. Concrete, brick and stone can create beautiful effects. Smooth plaster can be used. In all cases, careful specifying is required. Detailing around windows and doors must be correct to insure water-tightness. If you are thinking that your new structure has to be another ugly stucco box, I urge you to reconsider. Consult with an architect about the many options available.
In a perfect world, wealth and taste would go hand in hand. Too often this is not the case. When I was an architecture student, I asked an instructor why Irvine had so many red tile roofs. He told me a story about Donald Bren, owner of the Irvine Company. It seems Bren was visiting Italy and fell in love with Italian architecture. When he returned, he decreed that all buildings in Irvine must have red-tile roofs. Yup - to him, red tile roof = Italian architecture. Or so I was told. Anyway, this resulted in some absurd architecture. Ever wonder why so many strip malls in Orange County have funny looking tile roofs scabbed onto their facades? These derive from a French roof type called a “Mansard” roof. This roof was popular in France in the mid 1800s – as a tax / zoning dodge. So today we see French roofs on Mission Style Taco Bell restaurants. This sort of architectural incoherence is rarely endearing. More often it comes off as bombastic and odd. Stroll down the strands of Hermosa or Manhattan Beach. Notice all the examples of architectural confusion. The focus on style over substance often results in absurd buildings. Take english cottage style mansions. The very style is a contradiction in terms. Cottages are small single room homes. Mansions are...well, they are mansions. The designer usually compounds this stylistic absurdity. Tiny divided windows facing spectacular ocean views are an example. From the inside, its like looking out through prison bars. Next time you walk the strand, see how many examples of such traditional style windows you can find. These are called “divided lite” windows by the way. They are faking a old window type. This type developed before the invention of industrial plate glass. Fake mullions are placed between two sheets of modern insulating glass. High tech, sealed double pained windows filled with an inert gas like argon to prevent thermal conduction. Low emissivity glass that rejects infrared radiation after an exotic coating process. With fake mullions simulating ancient glazing methods. This is like designing a Ferrari to look like a horse and buggy. Ask yourself what purpose such stylized windows serve, and at what cost they come to the quality of light and view for the building's occupants.
Before about 2000, custom homes in mid-century modern style were rare, unless designed by an Architect. Most custom homes were either a variation on the Mission Style or some eclectic, stylistically incoherent variation of it. Then mid-century modernism began to enjoy a renaissance. Publications like Dwell magazine championed the style. Television shows like Mad Men popularized the fashions, furniture and interiors of the era. This was not all bad. Southern California in the mid 20th century was home to some of the best architects in the world. Architects like Richard Nuetra and Rudolph Schindler developed unique approaches to architectural design. They took advantage of California's climate and its potential for indoor / outdoor living. When handled by good architects there is no better approach to architecture. People who don't understand modernism produce shallow, generic, boring interpretations of it. Unfortunately, I'm seeing more and more of these sorts of buildings. They threaten to debase a great architectural style, and turn people away from it. Modernism has at its core, a set of principles that revolve around the integration of form and function. It strives to simplify and clarify. Modernist buildings express their structural and spatial systems in subtle, but powerful ways. Because of its visual simply, every detail and every proportion is critical. Modernism is in many ways a classical approach to design. All it lacks is the ornamentation seen in traditional classical buildings. Everything is sleek and balanced. I am a modernist at heart. My aim when designing buildings is to have them dissolve into a layered sequence of spaces. Spatial character takes precedence over architectural flourish. It is my own architectural feng shui. Everything flows together, and yet there are complex and layered spatial relationships. This creates a dynamic balance, and the building comes alive for its occupants.
So how can owners avoid making these mistakes?
Some solutions are easy and obvious:
Think in terms of more than raw square footage when planning your project.
Other problems benefit from consulting with building professionals:
Before purchasing land, carefully consider zoning laws. Get a soils report. Determine if what you want to build is economically, technically and legally feasible. Architects and engineers can be of great help here, and at modest cost relative to your investment. Most licensed architects charge between $100 and $200 per hour for their time. A pre-purchase site visit and zoning code analysis shouldn't require more than a day's work on the architect's part for a typical residential project. This investment has the potential to save you tens of thousands of dollars down the road, so you don't want to penny-pinch here.
Other problems can be addressed by hiring an architect with a clear design philosophy. Make sure their philosophy gybes with your needs and vision for the project. Most architects have some flexibility, but it doesn't make sense to hire a traditionalist to design something contemporary.
I hope you've enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing it. Feel free to contact me anytime if you have questions about your building project. I'm here to help.