The Bachelor’s Life Redefined


One aspect of the deep pleasure in practicing architecture is the way my life intersects with others as they travel along their path, seeking to make a difference in their life and where they live.  My trajectory is like a long, carefully drafted polyline with course corrections and directional changes so often influenced by an individual or family traveling along their own sinuous line.  When the two lines cross, a node is created.  That node is our work together, creating architecture.  Recently, Alex, Heather, Andrew and Ethan’s line came into view and now a year or so later, the product of our time together is coming to fruition.  The house you see above was designed and built by a bachelor surveyor on a lovely hillside site overlooking Lake Folsom in California.  We needed to transform it into a home for a family of four.  That roll up door leads into a double height garage/shop space that comprises fully half the area of the house.  Our process involved a number of design iterations as we all sought that sweet feeling of having it just right.  One constraint was to not add significantly to the building’s square footage which creates something of chessboard design process as one item moves here and another gets out-of-the-way over here and so on.

Also a detached garage needed to be added since the original one was becoming master bedroom, bedroom and other functions.  Due to the slope of the site, the garage floor sat thirty-eight inches above the second floor of the house where the new front door was placed.  A thirty-six foot long covered walk that bridged to the house was conceived and had to drop six steps to get down there.


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Working in Archicad, my 3D modeling program I created the above model of the original house and some of the site.  As we moved along with design, workshop was added to the garage which had been located to fit in between some lovely oak trees and the gorgeous granite rock outcroppings.  As I delighted in the straight alignment of the house, the walk and the door to the garage nestled in next to the shop, an “oh shucks” look came across my face. The view from the shop window to the lake was blocked by the house.  The solution was to flip the shop to the other side which now meant that the lovely straight covered walk was going to have to have a kink in it.  Ok no problem just push a few buttons in the super automated computer program right?  Not by half.

When I graduated from USC Architecture the prime directive was that the technology of creating architecture, right down to the way a carpenter puts a screw in a trim board, serves at the pleasure of good design.  Well each project I claim has one or two design hot spots where the most energy is expended in translating the vision into something that can be built.  This walk is the high calorie feature where I embraced the picture of seeing people walk along, approach the house and experience the wonderful landscape and views.Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 11.42.35 AM

You can just see in the background the covered walk,  below are pictures of the actual construction.IMG_2416

Contractor Sean Van Gelder and his whole very talented crew have done a wonderful job executing this work


The long exciting road full of intense thinking and drawing creates a really deep reservoir of feeling about projects like this and when you see the building in real life taking shape, your soul dips into that pool of experience and quivers………alot.


Finding a Home for a Dream House

I was paddling my kayak on the Sacramento River last weekend, enjoying the river life, and remembered that I needed to get the word out that this lovely little house, also on the river, designed by Brent Smith here in Sacramento is looking for a new loving owner.  Here are a few images and an article written by Hilary Abramson.




They call it The Wisteria House.

Near the edge of the Sacramento River, vines the size of an elephant’s leg twist around even thicker poles from berm to trellis.   Bare-root in the winter, they create a lattice against skylights through which the sun warms aggregate floors.  Spring’s purple blooms reserve their show for the flat roof, since most of the energy goes into the green canopy that cools everything down come summer.

It has taken more than three decades to create this sustainable umbrella. Now that it is done, it is time for me to leave.  The dream is fulfilled. It is the right time to pass it on to someone who will likewise love, respect and care for it.

This is the house that Brent Smith designed.  An artist at heart (and former Sacramento high school art teacher), Brent might be the only California home designer to have a bronze plaque in a park across from City Hall: “Brent Smith, humanitarian,” it reads. “He truly believed that we were here to transform matter into spirit and touch the soul.”

When he was killed by a city bus in 2002, Brent was 61 years of age and perhaps best known for designing the downtown Quinn Cottages homeless village to which he donated his time and money. He also created the Rumsey Wintun Tribe Village as a multigenerational development and other homes in northern California.

But it is Sacramento County’s first passive-solar, Wisteria House – built in 1978 — that is probably his most widely published design.

Brent and I had met two years earlier in his University of California, Davis, extension course on building and designing your own, small energy-efficient house.  A Jersey girl to whom “do-it-yourself’ meant doing your hair without help from a professional, I enrolled on an impulse. Once in the sway of Brent’s intensity and philosophy of living, his obsession became mine.

Those were the days of “small is beautiful,” and Brent walked the talk. He believed homes should be “sacred” and reflect “vocabulary” of their surroundings without imitating other designs.  He preached designing homes with expansion in mind.  Design what you need, he’d say, in a way that offers multiple use of space and provides with integrity of design for adding square footage for children and/or elders.  Why build huge spaces and waste precious energy heating and cooling them for one or two people?  How many American dining rooms sit empty while a couple eats in the kitchen or den?

The Wisteria House, for instance, is 1,065 square feet of open space with insulated, moveable shojis, several of which lift out to create space for the dining area to seat up to eight people. In place, those moveable doors offer privacy for a second bedroom/study off the dining room.  The foundation of 36 poles deep in cement was separately engineered for earthquake and flood and remains level today.  Brent’s vision for more than two, pared-down dwellers was to add another story.

Those were the days when farmers and only a few urban individualists willing to deal with wells, septic tanks and floods lived off the Garden Highway, a two-lane road separating the Sacramento River from riparian and farmed fields. I bought three-quarters of an acre two miles north of the Elkhorn Boat Dock, and when Brent’s course was over, I asked if he would design a small, pole house that would put us “above the flood.”

On retreat at California’s first commune—Ananda in Nevada City—Brent met the head of its construction company.  These builders meditated after their lunch breaks and you could eat off the planks they cleaned at the end of each day.  They named the house “Haridasi” (daughter of God) and to this day, “J’ai Guru” (long live the Guru) remains carved in the cement holding the country mailbox.

Despite this backstory – and a redwood hot tub in the master bedroom/bath area under a dome-shaped skylight—the house is timeless. Many visitors have remarked that it feels like combination of a New York City penthouse and a coastal Sea Ranch house.

My favorite touches:  Water running down Japanese chains inside plexi-glass downspouts; the plexiglass overhang keeping the front doorway dry and allowing full view of the wisteria-protected entrance; the ability to close the house “like a box” against too hot or too cold weather via counterbalanced, vertically drawn window shutters and hanging, insulated doors; standing in the hottub watching flames in the fire stove – and the sun going down over the river.

The Wisteria House has had many admirers.  In 1982, Architects David Wright and Dennis A. Andrejko featured it in a six-page spread in Passive Solar Architecture, logic & beauty (35 Outstanding Houses Across the United States).  That same year, Sunset magazine showed it off in two pages.  In 1983, Fine Homebuilding magazine took six pages to describe the house and how it “works.”

It is my hope that the next occupant keeps the spirit of The Wisteria House in tact. There are enough McMansions on the river.

As Brent wrote in 1996 in Dialogues with the Living Earth (New Ideas on the Spirit of Place from Designers, Architects & Innovators), “We just can’t afford to continue building unlovable buildings, towns and cities.”


Standing On The Shoulders Of Past Architects; Imitation Or Inspiration?

Every architect must confront the precedent of the Greeks and their legacy of design somewhere along in his or her career.  We first come into contact with their wonderful buildings much sooner than most of us know because, you see, the elements of design that they used are imitated throughout our daily environment in all the cities of western civilization.  From the U.S. Capitol to a little school house I saw out of the corner of my eye in Port Costa, California, to the styrofoam “columns” available on aisle 14 in your local Home Depot, (sorry about the indignity of it all Ictinus), Grecian architectural vocabulary is all around us.  We get a formal introduction to their work during history classes in architecture school and from then on we confront them in our own work.  Most of us try not to imitate and some of us go deeper into the roots, beyond the decoration of a Corinthian column, to understand and utilize the meaning in the precedents they established.  The Erectheion above, is a favorite of mine for the richness and variety of the design.  It was built around 400 B.C. It features prominently in the linked article  I wrote three years ago addressing this imitation, inspiration question.More Than A Pediment And Six Columns


Heavy Breathing In The City

My wife has learned not to call for emergency medical attention when she sees me hyperventilating during one of our urban warrior walks through a wonderful city.  The heavy breathing ramped up quickly some time ago as I rounded this corner and ambled into the Place d’Youville in Montreal, Quebec.  I am a huge fan of humane urban spaces, scaled for just a few people.  I am not so much enamored with the spaces seen in some architect’s renderings requiring about 276 people (including at least 3 small children happily kicking big red balls) to enliven an otherwise feature-less composition.

Note that this space has only three people in it and it works super, plenty of green areas; good restraint by the landscape architect not letting one of the junior staff people go bonkers with paving patterns.

From my measured diagram, note the linear nature of the space.  I like the concept of this geometry being able to more seamlessly fit into a gridded street pattern as opposed to a square.  This form gives more frontage on the open space for the buildings running down the street.  In case you are wondering, the smaller number, like the one with the “p” next to it is my paced count which I multiply by 3 to get the measurement in feet.  During this trip, I was preparing to teach a high school course on architecture and liked the idea of this space as a precedent for the urban/architecture project I was planning on assigning.

The long, linear view can be seen here.  I think it is fine that the designer of this 2002 renovation did not need to block the view in some way but rather just let it flow to the obelisk barely visible at the end.  Behind me as I took this picture was a small building that encloses the space at the south end.

This early map shows where the Place was eventually placed in relation to the older part of the fortified city and the water front.  It came into existence in the 1600s as a market place

Here is an aerial view before the vegetation grew up to maturity.  Note the building blocking the end of the right hand drive lane.  A bit unfortunate in my opinion.

This is the front or north view of the building that stomped into the urban space.  It is an archaeological museum.  I am not too keen on the street-scape it created in terms of pedestrian friendliness.  Do you barely see the two people in this spare architectural scene?  They look pretty lost without the rest of the 274 people from the rendering and worst of all no cute kids kicking red balls.

The architecture of the Place is, how shall we say,  rather vintage!  I do admire and respect the geriatric buildings of the world and this one gets around using at least two canes!  The pilasters with capitols of an unknown order, the delicate arcuated windows and those little pairs of doors flanking the front door.  Major character expression in this facade!  This is a classic zero-setback (meaning it sits right on the edge of the sidewalk), party-wall building (meaning its wall touches and occasionally frolics with the one next to it).  This form is very efficient and creates a generally well-formed city fabric.

Here, my friends, is a youth who knows how to treat its elders.  A totally modern addition that respects the form of the place to the extent that it delicately goes up and across the top of an older, doddering fella who needs some love and is not ready for the rubble pile.  I am breathing heavy again as I write this.  It is OK if you too, fog up your computer screen a little.  The architectural and urban excitement just keeps on coming around so many corners in wonderful cities.


Family of Four Houses

Bright sun, stiff tailwind and smooth pavement are bicycling delights. The last piece of the pleasure for me last April was a little architectural delicacy to savor. More than a few candidates stepped into my twenty mile per hour view as I traveled south on California’s Highway One, south of Mendocino. Downtown Manchester, all five buildings worth, presented a modest little group of houses that seemed to have been friends since their early years on this lonely stretch of coast. Vacation moments like this are ripe for a little dreaming. I imagined their beginning.

The drawings were spare, comprised of two sheets, 18 x 24, a plan, four elevations and two structural plans; foundation and roof framing. Drawn with an F lead on vellum, the lettering and line work were sharp and clean. The instructions to the designer had been to keep the cost down yet still he managed to articulate the form and place the windows with a taut control that added up to a tough and lively little group of buildings.

The day they dug the footings in 1952 was a sweet moment of promise for the crew, knowing that once they got through the foundation stage, the reward of framing awaited. With sill plates bolted and rim joists nailed down, soon the floor joists were being placed and nailed. It was three men on this project, working one building at a time and taking turns with cutting and nailing. Normally the sawing is set up close to the building so that measurements can easily be called out and it is a simple fluid motion to pass the cut material over to the ones who place and nail. A sixteen penny nail is pulled from the leather pouch with the left hand as the hammer in the right readies for a quick tap to set the nail and then three firm strokes to send it home. Douglas fir, no doubt milled nearby, smells great when freshly sawn. The electric circular saw was relatively new to construction and these carpenters reveled in the ease as they remembered the days of hand sawing.

There is a fussy part when they frame the walls with that little pooch-up at the front of the house. The angle of the sloping parapet return has to be measured just right and the studs are angle cut to hit the top plate flush. The designer is not there to take the ribbing from these journeymen as they wonder about the flat roof in this waterlogged climate. Once one house is framed, its brother or sister is next in line. With each successive sibling, the process smooths out and the pride of a craftsman knowing just the right move to cut or place or nail is sublime.

Once the framing is complete much of the stucco and plaster is complete on the first house and the carpenters switch to smaller hammers for the finish work. By the time eight months rolls by, the family of four is pretty much complete and ready for people to fill them up. A nice day for the crew when they see people settling in.

How I would love to know the whole story of these buildings. They seem to have held up to the elements fairly well and doubtless hold a lot of memories both real and imagined.

The Architectural Adventures Of Saxon Sigerson

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