Archive for April, 2006

April ‘06 index

Sunday, April 30th, 2006

Open building

Friday, April 28th, 2006

I recently received a copy of Fine Homebuilding‘s annual Houses issue (No. 179, Summer 2006). In the takingissue feature, entitled “A dismal standard,” Tedd Benson, whose company Bensonwood Homes builds timber-frame houses, discusses the decline in quality of traditional stick-built houses. He argues that this method, now largely accomplished in a chaotic and inefficient manner by relatively unskilled subcontractors, too often leads to poor construction and yields houses that lack the flexibility to adapt to new technologies and changing needs. Such structures are ultimately inefficient and environmentally suspect.

Looking to Europe for inspiration, his company has adopted Open Building principals and created a system called Open-Built which separates the primary systems in a house into six distinct entities, allowing each to be constructed independent of the others and, as a result, easily changed over the life of the house. He builds using pre-fabricated components that can be assembled off-site and put together in a customized configuration on site. He describes the system in his white paper:

Open Building (OB) is an innovative approach to design and construction that enhances the efficiency of the building process, while increasing the variety, flexibility and quality of the product. In the OB perspective, the building is viewed as a well-organized combination of systems and sub-systems, each of which can be carefully coordinated to ensure a better process and product for the homeowner and a parallel positive outcome for the building professionals. The major systems include the building site, the structural envelope, the division of space inside the building, the plumbing, wiring, heating/cooling, and the cabinets, furniture and other stuff that people put inside the building. By disentangling the systems and sub-systems from each other, opportunities are increased for better organization, increased consistency, quality and more control and flexibility for the homeowner.

I have no idea of the quality of Tedd Benson’s work or if his Open-Built system is as good as he claims, but the idea makes a lot of sense. Perhaps high-end, architect-designed custom homes are well-built, but the majority of homes constructed by builders, particularly those in tract developments, are indeed poorly built. With no motive other than profit, large traditional construction companies have little reason to go to the additional expense that careful building and quality materials may require. Poorly-built houses create enormous waste and environmental damage, yet this system is so firmly engrained that it isn’t likely to change without some compelling and truly viable alternatives. Whether Benson’s system provides a solution, or even a partial-solution, remains to be seen, but it seems to be a step outside the box of traditional thinking, and that is promising.

Good for Tedd Benson for his efforts to come up with a solution to a serious problem.

Furniture design class finale

Saturday, April 22nd, 2006

The last project for my furniture design class was to design another piece of furniture for the “line” we had begun with the chair and the display system. I designed a dining table. Here are the models – the dining table, the side table, and the original chair:

[flickr size=”small”][/flickr]

[flickr size=”small”][/flickr]

The design process got easier the further I got into the semester. Once the initial concept was worked out – the most difficult part for me – and the lines and form of the first piece established, it was relatively easy to envision other pieces. I chose a dining table for my last piece because the chair seemed to want a table, the table was relatively simple to draw in 3D CAD and to build as a model (time was running out on this semester!), and the forms and lines of the first two projects lent themselves nicely to tables.

The final designs are fairly basic. Given more time, I would refine the details of all the pieces, making subtle changes in form and finish details, and then expand the line to include other tables, a credenza, a freestanding cabinet or chest of drawers, and perhaps even kitchen cabinets. I have a ton of ideas.

This class was a good one. I learned lots about the design process and had fun with the modeling. I managed to incorporate some extras – 3D AutoCAD, SketchUp, and model building – that I feel rounded out my knowledge nicely.

More about this class:

Resources: Sustainability guidelines

Thursday, April 20th, 2006

Here is a list of organizations that provide online guidelines and standards for sustainable design. The list is just beginning – I’ll add to it as I learn about other sites.


Monday, April 17th, 2006

At last. A break in the schoolwork and a beautiful weekend. I spent the whole time in the garden, deep-sixing weeds, transplanting enormous clumps, and thinking about terraces. My old wood-framed vegetable beds have to go – the trees have grown to block most of the sun, so the days of vine-ripened tomatoes from the backyard are sadly past. Lots of new ideas are jumping into my head. I want to recontour the plot with stones and curves so I’m itching to go over to the quarry, haul in a few tons of rocks, and set to work. Before I do that, however, I need to dig out the old wood frames, move some plants, go to the hardware store to replace the shovel I busted prying up a stake, and of course make sure I have some time on my hands. A project is never straightforward.

I wish I had had some landscape design classes, but I’m finding that design is design. The same principles of proportion, line, and form apply whether it’s interiors, landscapes, architecture, or industrial design. What I have done by intuition for years is now backed up by a little education. With a lot more time and a fat pocketful of cash, I could make my backyard look really terrific.

Specialists vs Generalists . . . a medical analogy

Friday, April 14th, 2006

In thinking about specialists vs. generalists in the design field (see my post of January 4, 2006), I was reminded of a friend and her rounds with medical specialists. Here’s her story:

Seven or eight years ago my friend, who was rarely ill and never a complainer, began to have headaches. At first she ignored them, but after a while it began to bother her enough to see her internist. The internist told her she was doing sit-ups wrong and prescribed a muscle relaxant. The drug made her sick and avoiding the gym made her sluggish, but neither eliminated the headaches. Over the next few years, she worked with two different physical therapists, enrolled in yoga and tai chi, and got new glasses. No help. She went to a neurologist who said, “It’s a stressful world, dear. Just relax.” She went to an orthopedist who discovered two slipped discs which, by their position, suggested arm pain (which she didn’t have) but not necessarily headaches. She went to a neurosurgeon who told her to come back when she couldn’t use her hands anymore. She got an ergonometric office chair, she tried different pillows, she tried stretching. She still has the headaches.

The point of this rather long-winded litany is that none of the many specialists she saw bothered to make the slightest attempt to look beyond their specialties to figure out what was really going on with her headaches. My friend believes her problem has a solution and that it is just a matter of looking at it from the right angle – a task she counted on the medical profession to help her with.

On the other hand, I have another friend who has a son who was recently hospitalized with a complex illness. My friend had the highest praise for the doctors who cared for his son. His son was treated by specialists, but the difference is they worked together as a team, discussing his son’s case among them.

When I originally began to consider this analogy based on the experience of my friend with headches, I meant to make a cautionary point regarding increasing specialization in design, but now that I have seen my second friend’s contrasting positive experiences, I am not so sure the same conclusion can be drawn. I still believe over-specialization and lack of a “big picture” perspective raises the risk that something will be overlooked in a complex design project, but I’m really beginning to understand the benefits of a solid team of specialists. Perhaps the perfect design team would consist of a lot of specialists to drill down to the details and a couple of generalists (or versatilists) to watch out for the overall vision and direction of the project. I’m eager to get out of school and find out.

Networked books

Tuesday, April 11th, 2006

Yesterday, publisher Farrar, Straus, and Giroux released Robert Frenay‘s new book, Pulse. The release was unique – the book was stocked in bookstores in the traditional manner, but it was also released online at as a “networked” book. Basically, the full text of the book will be available to read in serialized form, for free, via twice-daily blog posts. Segments will be released for the next six months – accessed directly on the website or by subscribing to receive the segments by email or RSS feeds. If you want to read the whole book right away, you still have to buy it, but the online version has lots of extras, including internal links that let you instantly find what you want within the book’s text, external links to related information so you can explore ideas in greater depth, opportunities to comment, and a locus for online discussions.

The web release and format is the brainchild of an exciting company, Names@Work. Based in New York City, Names@Work is exploring the cutting edge of internet networking and marketing. Pulse is just one of their projects. The company believes that the internet is creating a “fundamental shift” in the way companies and people connect. By harnessing the networking potential of the web, Names@Work hopes to help its clients make valuable connections.

The simplicity of this new book-release format is almost astounding. Readers get the book for free, along with opportunities to increase their knowledge through links to relevant content and discussions, and the publisher and author get the buzz the site creates. Buzz is bound to translate into increased sales. If Names@Work’s idea is right – if people find the site, like it, and talk about it – the potential exists for the book to reach millions of readers in a very short time.

Reaching a wide audience is obviously at the heart of any commercial use of the internet. What’s different about the Pulse release is that the publisher is not in your face with its commercial interests. Traditional advertising annoys me with it’s frenetic images and soundtracks, obvious exaggeration, and even outright dishonesty. I resent being manipulated to believe I need whatever is being sold. Here, clearly the publisher would like me to buy this book, but there’s no hard sell – if I get interested in the book and can’t wait 6 months for the last segment, then the chances are high that I’ll buy it. But I can make that choice without pressure and that’s refreshing.

Selling a product or service through a blog that provides value may turn out to be the next big thing. If it works for this book, how might it work in the A&E community? Might design firms offer fully indexed sites that become sources for learning? It’s food for thought.

Names@Work and FSG are onto something.

Musings on the Modern Era

Tuesday, April 4th, 2006

Students and practitioners of interior design and architecture need a grasp of history, not so much so they can identify old buildings or historic furniture (though this may be useful), but so they can understand the intellectual, social, and artistic underpinnings of modern times. I’ve been doing some research for a presentation on Art Deco for my History of Interiors class this semester and have come across a great deal of discussion of the “Modern Era” – when it began and what it was that made it “modern.”

Scholars differ broadly in defining when the Modern Era began, but I would place its roots in the 18th century, for this was the time that modern notions of society, law, and education really began. The 18th century in Europe was the Age of Enlightenment – an era of unprecedented intellectual growth. Although the Enlightenment involved only the aristocracy, it set the stage for humanism, scientific discovery, and a general questioning of political and social systems. In essence, modern thought was born. The 18th century also saw the beginnings of a middle class and the birth of notions of social equality and fairness. Scientific inquiry, humanism, and social reform are key components of modern life and the existence of a middle class was critical to the development of modern economic systems.

The 18th century contained its roots, but the Modern Era sprouted in the 19th century with the Industrial Revolution. Inventions and scientific discoveries led to mass production of goods which the growing middle class increasingly consumed. By the end of the century the world was linked by railroads, telegraphs, and telephones. Electric power lit up the expanding cities and the first combustion engine automobiles were in production. Inventors were on the verge of developing manned aircraft. Everything was new; anything seemed possible.

Industrialization created social problems, however, and the reform movements that hoped to rectify these issues also became part and parcel of modern life.

Art, architecture, and design movements of the 19th century were concerned with reform, but by the turn of the century the focus began to switch to what would become a common characteristic of all Modern Era design – a desire to express the essence of the times. For example, the Arts and Crafts movement of the mid-19th century reacted against the impersonalization of mechanization and expressed a widely-shared nostalgia for the simple and honest life. In the 1890’s, however, Art Nouveau strongly reflected the times, embodying the sensuousness of Parisian life in elegant organic forms.

By the early 20th century, the Modern Era was in full bloom. The first decade saw an explosion of architectural and design approaches that sought to capture the essence of contemporary times, including the Vienna Secession, Futurism, Expressionism, the Deutscher Werkbund, the De Stijl group, the beginnings of Modernism, and Art Deco. In art Cubism piqued the imagination of the intelligencia and provided inspiration to designers all over the world.

World War I interrupted the idylicism of the first decade of the new century. The war shocked people of all nations into a new sense of globalization and promise, but also a new sense of disillusionment and insecurity. By the 1920s, the pace of life was dizzying: commercial airplanes and high-speed intercontinental railroads made international travel possible; radio and film brought new voices and new idols to the public; big business and advertising created a consumer society characterized by desire and extravagance; new inventions and materials enabled the production of a vast array of consumer goods; women enjoyed new freedoms; and the middle class attained new economic power. The overall focus of post-war times was speed – escalating invention, fast modes of transportation, long-distance communication.

Modern designers responded. Some, such as the Modernists who espoused the International Style, designed for the intellectual and economic elite, striving to simplify architecture and furniture to basic geometric elements. Others, such as many Art Deco designers, aimed for the consuming public, taking full advantage of manufactured materials and processes and incorporating geometric, streamlined forms to express the pace of modern life. The forms created by architects and designers in the first three decades of the century are unmistakably modern and remain in use in the 21st century.

March ‘06 index

Saturday, April 1st, 2006