Friday, November 5, 2010

Roll On, Columbia

Photo courtesy Flickr

My partner brought welcome second-hand blog feedback from a recent business trip to Coulee Dam. A reader lives in a neighborhood of subsidized housing built for the managers who supervised the construction of Grand Coulee. She has a three-month old baby, a house that resembles Albert Balch’s first developments in Seattle, and a generous lot.

I hear the neighborhood is a good one, the location convenient, and the schools so-so. The following comments honor a modest school of architecture that designed full-scale versions of the Monopoly house and does wonders for home economy. World War Two housing projects, both on and off military bases, have the same qualities in multi-family units. The essences of the design are a square, low-ceilinged interior that saves heat and spaces that are oriented toward manual skill.

Albert Balch developed the early postwar suburbs of Seattle. One of his first neighborhoods was Wedgwood in Northeast Seattle. The houses resemble the efficient Cape Cod design that Mr. Levitt’s crews cranked out by the thousand on Long Island. I believe this design was the winner of a national architectural competition for veteran’s housing.

Over the years, I have visited quite a few Balch constructions, both the early model and later versions that solve the same basic problem of housing a family efficiently. It’s fascinating to compare individual responses to the same design. Suburban monoculture was still controversial when I was a child. Levittown stunned the critics. The evolution of the neighborhoods has been instructive.

An informed carpenter can retrofit the moldings in one of these places and make it look like a million. An informed architect can make one look like anything she pleases. The modest scale makes it economical to replace old windows with efficient ones, and the original design supports easy maintenance and moderate heat bills. Small rooms and low ceilings were an eighteenth-century response to keeping warm. The ceiling itself was a luxury.

Modest late pre-war and early post-war family housing is the most efficient I know, frankly designed for a literate, middle-class housekeeper who stayed at home with her children, the ideal strategy of the time. Until World War Two, a buyer had to raise a fifty percent down payment, so service areas were designed to please a woman who knew something about the finer things in life and was unwilling to work herself to death. She would have been well-trained in the domestic arts for social reasons and because the first wave of women’s liberation had concentrated on scientific home management. Housekeeping was her occupation, her labor respected, and she would have called the shots at home, since she was traditionally responsible for the moral atmosphere under the roof. She might have been the first woman in her line to keep house without having someone in service.

The great gains in labor-saving appliances were all in place by the Thirties. Electricity had displaced hauling solid fuel to cook and to heat water, and it eliminated the heavy labor of washing clothes. Susan Strasser’s Never Done lays out the details of this evolution. Interestingly, President Dwight Eisenhower’s childhood home has been preserved as the textbook example of electrified housekeeping.

The small houses of this period function like free-standing condominiums. When they were built, timber was abundant, and consequently, one can count on finding irreplaceable straight-grain Doug fir framing under the fireproof lath and plaster walls. Some structures built during and just after the war had inferior wiring because of a copper shortage, but it is likely that any house from this period has had that problem corrected as well as toxic plumbing replaced.

It is also likely that any house from this period looks less beautiful than it was meant to, because the original cedar shake roof has been replaced by flat synthetics. It would be a small matter to make the next roof of fake shingles to restore the original charming texture of the roofline. A freestanding house on its own piece of land was intended to produce its own food. In the eighteenth century it was traditional to plant “marriage trees”, a pair of apples, on either side of the front door. The white picket cliche' is designed to keep horses out of the garden.

The original Cape Cod cottage was designed by shipwrights to hold together on the shifting sands of the cape itself, to be hauled to another site should need be, and to resist strong winds. The cottage is all of a piece, like a mobile home. This is earthquake country, and a small, square house built of fine timber is a good bet to survive, particularly one that is sited in the lee of prevailing winds. Global warming has multiplied natural disasters six-fold over the last fifty years, and a roofline that sheds wind is a wise, though perhaps unfashionable, asset.

In Seattle, Balch homes are found on choice sites, because they were developed so early and the city is itself so young. The attics have good headroom, and the basements can be amazing, with high ceilings, clean cement, and straightforward laundry and shop space. Dryers were unknown when the house was new, and laundry dried on lines indoors in the winter. This single practice extends the usable life of clothing many times over, maintains healthy humidity levels in the interior, slashes power bills, relieves textiles’ heavy load on the environment, and simplifies wardrobe management by keeping key items in the rotation.

In my county, a house is taxed on its habitable space, so an unfinished attic and basement are productive, usable, and very convenient assets. Home tasks and production are not taxed, so every dollar saved is worth the additional percentage of the yearly federal rate and the cost of earning it. There’s an opportunity cost to home labor-the time it takes can be spent earning money in the larger economy-but many hands-on chores are more convenient than their market equivalent, so there’s always the opportunity to finesse a benefit.

I don’t know of another house design that supports self-reliance, family life, and energy conservation (both personal and artificial) as well as a Cape Cod cottage. These places were rendered obsolete by bulky Art Deco appliances and electronics that were proportioned wrong for traditional architecture. Furnish with miniaturized electronics and the small-space seating that is now easy to find, though, and they’re better than new. It is easy to find traditional used furnishings for traditional architecture, and the eighteenth century designed the best small space furniture I know. Norma Skurka's New York Times Book of Interior Design and Decoration begins with a concise visual history of furniture.

Only a fool would follow my advice about the current real estate market, but I have read that it’s not realistic to count on home ownership to be a pot of gold. The wisest comment I know came in the late Seventies from Sylvia Porter, the money guru of her day, who pointed out that assessing the value of a house starts with measuring the dollar value of living there each month. Porter has interesting comparisons on owning versus renting. Unquestionably, all things connected with houses have been inflated, from size to furniture to expectations to risk, while the quality of construction has declined.

I once lived for several months in a thirty-dollar plastic, wire hanger, and 1x1 geodesic dome on big waterfront acreage. From that summer, I took away an appreciation for land over facilities. The current trend in housing, at least here in my home town, has been to build fence-line to fence-line. Though the new trend must have its virtues, the old way is more agreeable to me. Northeast Seattle was zoned for small urban lots. Many of the cottages in that area have been owned by wealthy families who also own places in the country. Houses lashed to additions break apart in an earthquake.

Were I to raise children in a cottage, I’d consider a putting a greenhouse on the back of the lot to provide playspace, produce, and a retreat. Here in town, I live as close to the outdoors as I can manage. A rustic shed, covered sitting area by a fireplace, and lattice-screened and glassed-in porches provide a spectrum of shelter that offers comfort and fresh air no matter what the weather, so the taxable luxury of habitable space can be minimal. The neighborhood would determine the level of security I’d design into the fence. If my fence were more secure, I’d sleep outside even within walking distance of downtown highrises, because the soundscape is so pleasing.

Vita Sackville-West’s classic Garden Book celebrates the cottage garden as a model of efficiency and a reservoir of heirloom plants. Restoring a period garden would frame a house to best advantage. It wouldn’t be a huge chore: a landscape architect could design edible ornament, and many of the period post-war plants, like the Peace rose, still survive. Old copies of glossy shelter magazines are good sources of period design.

Balch houses sometimes came with a solid double garage on a separate foundation. One would makes a good guest house or lofty party space, even unfinished. Current surveillance technology will reduce the risk of having children active under a separate roof. My bias is to make the most of an existing facility rather than dink around with remodeling. A local graphic designer was one of the first contemporaries I knew to buy a house, in 1973. He and his wife valued their Thirties Tudor because it had never been remodeled, and I’ve had a weak spot for original integrity ever since. A few hours’ reading and surfing will reveal the history of a building.

Flickr’s on line photo site is a gold mine of images for restoration, that can often be accomplished with bargains. Vintage domestic technology frequently saves energy and uses the space for which it was designed to best advantage. It’s worth the trouble to research period housekeeping when living in a period house, to avoid arrogantly dismissing an original amenity as obsolete. Original designs often save energy.

Historic preservation can be a canny strategy for boosting property values. Ravenna, a small neighborhood in northeast Seattle, is internationally famous for its reservoir of Arts and Crafts bungalows, and the prices are, or at least were recently, astronomical. Coulee Dam’s architecturally consistent neighborhood of management housing on one of if not the most important and critical public works projects of the richest and most powerful country of the twentieth century, which is to say in the history of the world, has historic value. It would be fascinating to play up the history of the site and keep on hand a copy of the PBS documentary about constructing the dam.

The reader in Coulee Dam, I am told, grew up on a ranch in Montana and is wondering about the kind of family home for her future. I have the sense that she is unfamiliar with suburbs. So am I, and if I were to start cold in family housing, I’d do a little reading in urban design rather than make expensive decisions based on media comments. There are national security implications to the network of highways, but I don’t understand them. We bought this place in lieu of warehouse shop space. My dearest mentor-in-housing was a Seven Sisters graduate who could have lived anywhere but chose a workingman’s cottage walking distance from Union Square in San Francisco. Culture is good caulking for status leaks.

I doubt that I would have made the same decisions had my mother been alive when I was house-hunting. I once teased a colleague about her kitchen layout, asking Jane what her mother would think about her choices, and Jane snapped back, “My mother doesn’t have my problems.” The original suburbs were pre-war zones of privilege for families who could afford the time and expense of a commute and of maintaining a large lot, not the dense postwar developments that resembled factory farms and depended on cheap oil. In either case, behind a suburb often lay a family of privilege forced to sell its estate because of progresssive taxation.

A wise matron wondered about my decision to buy close to downtown when the area was, to put it mildly, out of fashion. I said we had decided to pay private school tuition instead of putting money into a gas tank, and she relaxed, commenting that early education is the most important. This is now the most popular area in town for young adults, though older bigots retain obsolete preconceptions of the Hill.

Diana Phipps’ Affordable Splendor is a guide to improvising elegant, comfortable quarters in affordable neighborhoods. I know a surprising number of art names who live in areas that are usually mentioned with hesitation. Eleanor Roosevelt advised choosing to live in any neighborhood that does not actively damage one’s reputation. She also quoted her mother-in-law as saying furniture that is good enough to buy in the first place is good enough to keep.

When I’m in a design quandary now, I ask what the carbon load of a decision is likely to be. CO2 awareness was nascent in the late Sixties as I was beginning to consider housing, and I chose a dense urban area because I didn’t need a car to get around. When the oil crisis hit after Saigon fell, there were fist fights in gas station lines.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


Photo courtesy Flickr

That’s Temporarily Able-Bodied, the disabled community’s term for those of us who can walk and are not pushing strollers.

I threw my car away fourteen years ago, getting enough from the junk dealer to buy a rolling backpack and a stout pair of hiking boots. The first thing I learned as a voluntary pedestrian was to be grateful for the Americans with Disability Act, because the curb cuts that serve people in chairs make it easy for me to whip around town pulling a relatively elegant substitute for a wire shopping cart on wheels.

I wrenched a knee earlier this year, a temporary but inconvenient handicap. It has been enough for me to realize that it’s more than prudent to factor disability into residential design as a first consideration rather than after the fact. Look for a level entry and essential services all on one floor.

From the beginning, it has been standard practice to have one bedroom off the kitchen for child birth and home nursing. It’s a small matter to expand beyond that essential core, but it’s a bear if the core is missing to begin with.

The first couple of weeks on that knee had me considering every move I made, especially in the kitchen, and I was grateful to have set up the space along Frederick Taylor’s basic principles of industrial efficiency: store things where you use them first and within easy reach.

The greater blog lists other ways of saving effort, and the slimmer my physical resources, the more valuable Taylorism becomes.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Photo courtesy Flickr

Thirty years ago it cost $900 to heat this 1890 house during our first winter. My brother restored the storm windows and halved the amount of oil we burned. The last several years’ experiments with conservation slashed consumption to less than a quarter of that original total. But for one room, the house has no insulation and is unchanged from the original blueprints. Its long axis east-west solar orientation and passive solar advantages are textbook examples.

When school starts, I contemplate wardrobe and heat. Cashmere pays for itself in one season, as do down and wool. I hate to sew, but I enjoy a late summer visit to a fabric store to look at pattern books. The global folk inventory took hippies by storm, and it’s a useful working history of costume. Last time I looked through it, I noticed an elegant nineteenth-century Russian outfit of privilege: an ankle-length slender underdress topped with a long sleeveless vest.

Several years ago I snagged a hooded raincoat lined with fake fur off a sales rack. The price was peanuts, relatively, and though the coat was bulkier than the long nylon one that gets me through the foulest days of winter, I thought the bargain worth the bother of storing it. The furry shroud sat around unworn for a couple of seasons, after which I realized that I could remove the sleeves and use it as an ultimate bathrobe. It took nerve to cut up a brand new coat, but an hour’s hand hemming yielded all that I had hoped for and more.

Last year I turned the furnace off altogether except for days it might freeze. I heat the smallest and only insulated room, our upstairs study, with a three by five foot electric floor mat that lies under an area rug. The vest/mat combination pared a hundred gallons off the fuel bill.

In 1969, I survived the coldest winter in the history of Western Washington in an unheated north-facing cabin on the beach west of Port Angeles. There were holes at the peeled pole rafters large enough to let in frolicking squirrels and ten foot icicles hanging from the eaves. The sun didn’t touch the building from November to March. It took a week for the chimney to heat up when I went away overnight, and I learned not to fear whatever damp cold the weather could throw at me.

When I decided to leave this furnace off two seasons ago, rather than keeping the thermostat at fifty-five, I wanted to use the oil burner as if it were a fireplace, substituting personal perception of chill for robotic service. Leaving the furnace off rather than at a minimum made no difference in comfort, except when I paid Sound Oil. If we’re away from the house and there’s risk of a freeze, I leave the heat at fifty-five to protect the water system. Accurate satellite weather forecasting makes it easy to predict the need for heat. It’s a relatively new factor in heat management.

It takes half an hour to drive off the chill when I come back to an unheated house, about the same time as it takes for a fire to make a space comfortable. In the interval, I’m usually on my feet putting things away, and I can often find a place to settle that is comfortable from what passes for a day’s sun during a Seattle winter.

It has become second-nature to reach for the sleeveless fur-lined robe on a chilly morning, as it has become second-nature to don an angora beret. I realized this morning that my costume is that of nineteenth-century Russia, but featherweight and low maintenance. Readily available cashmere knits, synthetic weaves, and fake fur make it easy to dress comfortably for minimum heat without being handicapped by pounds of yardage.

The climate of Western Washington is one of the most benign in the world, and the urgent strategies for fending off cold that dominate the continental climate are irrelevant here. Five generations of housekeeping in year-round damp gray chill that hovers around forty-five degrees have proven the value of animal fibers, clean lighting, spot heat, fitness, and good nutrition. With those factors squared away, one can live perfectly well in a tent.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Susie Homemaker vs. The Sound

Photo courtesy Flickr

I doubt that the physical appearance of musical instruments was a problem before electricity, but when home high fidelity components first came on the market in the early Fifties, they looked raw. The first task of an audiophile was to find a cabinetmaker to pacify the “lady of the house”.

About fifteen years ago, I chanced to visit a collector of radios whose basement rec room housed crowded aisles of parlor sets, aka furniture that talks, from the first half of the twentieth century. The space was an essay in mass market interior design, linked to broadcasting only by the reptilian cords and dense gray wool carpeting that gave the room the same stuffy ambiance as a broadcast studio.

Sound was not the purpose of my visit when I called at the house of a serious audiophile around 1980. The man had owned a radio station. On admission, I found that I had not entered the living room: I had been surrounded by a collection. The walls were lined floor to ceiling, wall to wall with shelves that housed thousands of twelve inch albums, a serious burden to the floor. I don’t remember seeing furniture in this space.

People used to “play the radio” rather than turning it on. Archaic systems make it obvious that skill was required to get the most out of a broadcast signal. The simplest part of this aspect of electric sound is to tune it so that the signal is not fuzzy. Next I suppose one adjusts bass and treble if the receiver offers those options. That’s about as much audio as I command, except to be careful not to touch vinyl if I’m tipsy or have peanut butter on my fingers.

I find an ill-tuned signal as discomforting as fingernails on a chalkboard. This is the season to dig in for winter. Every autumn I have to remember that the fastest and cheapest way to jack up my standard of living is to tune the house.

Different aspects of the interior get tuned in different years, depending on how our behaviors have evolved. This is the year to consider music and space. A friend used to occupy the ground floor of a white-painted mansion in Tacoma. Constructed in the local style known as “early lumber baron”, the house graced E Street with Corinthian columns, a symmetrical facade, and a shallow curved urban driveway. Effie said the place had been built by a lovesick millionaire to lure his Philadelphia bride to the woods. Effie’s living room had been the music room, and it was beautifully proportioned to set off her comfortable, elegant furnishings. I don’t recall seeing instruments in this space, but the quality of discourse in the room was music itself.

My partner plays electric guitar, and the front parlor is silting up with instruments. It took me years to realize that a blocky amp covered in pebbled black leatherette is itself an instrument, and I like that just fine. This month’s housekeeping project will be to try to integrate electronic sound systems and domestic support spaces. I’ve decided to give the band its head and work around whatever best serves the music.

I suspect that a medieval interior will integrate a dining room and the redundant amps. Music gear is designed to be portable. Even the amateur’s collection in our front room travels quite a bit. In the Middle Ages, the household toured from one estate to another as resources were exhausted, much, I suppose, as a band harvests admissions from one city and another.

A medieval hall house was often as small as a living room. In one corner it held a four-poster bed with hangings for the dominant couple. It would be lined with storage chests on which the rest of the household slept at night. A board and trestle was set up for meals. The master of the house would sit on a “faldstuhl” or portable throne, aka director’s chair, and others sat on stools. Children stood at table, which makes great sense.

I’ve been itching to experiment with amps as furniture, since they’re just the right height to sit on, and they are far better designed than most of the chairs I see every day. A few cushions or pads improvised from sheepskins and lap robes should set us up with a sturdy banquette that will foster good posture and good practice.

Acoustic qualities enrich domestic life better and more cheaply than anything except an incandescent lamp with a silk shade. When I pause to consider the wealth of music that is free but for the cost of juice, it makes me dizzy. Besides the brilliant classical type design now at the fingertips of anyone with a personal computer, I can’t think of any higher priority at home than the soundscape. We are blind, or perhaps deaf, to our wealth.

-30- More after the jump.