Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Steady-state Housekeeping

Photo courtesy Flickr user EvelynGiggles

Super-janitor Don Aslett advises making a moderate, consistent effort to keep the house in order, avoiding the peaks and pits of great leaps forward followed by exhausted sloth. A little experience sailing small boats taught me that minor attention to keeping the vessel in trim paid handsome rewards in speed and ease.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Someone Else's House 3.0

Photo courtesy Flickr user Arthur Chapman
I enjoyed a festive evening in a new suburban house. The owners had previously lived in a tiny Seventies cottage chopped up into small rooms. Anna said they hesitated about making the change but trusted the realtor who was suggesting it.

The architecture of the new place is an interesting romp through the culture and domestic economy of 2014. Unlike most ordinary twentieth century private houses, Anna’s place opens with a small office set off the front hall. I enjoyed a flat in a nineteenth century mansion with the same amenity during a Sixties sojourn in Utah.  The office is across the hall from a powder room generous enough eventually to accommodate extra bath and laundry facilities.

The house has nine foot ceilings and a dark floor that makes the space feel even loftier. It was interesting to observe a familiar gathering in the new quarters. Usually the holiday event feels crowded and faintly jittery in a family home with conventionally defined mid-twentieth century suburban rooms. The new space has a great sense of poise about it. Plain structural elements create a pleasantly theatrical sense of pillar that enables standing groups to converse intimately and traffic to flow easily. The public rooms in this house probably have fewer cubic feet than the other places that have hosted the gathering, but the designer has used the space with great skill.

The main floor of the house is well-designed for working out of the home. The kitchen, with its production wall of cabinets and appliances facing a freestanding stone-topped counter, is cooly efficient. It does not differ from kitchen layouts that span the demographic divide between a small exurban house in a recent Kitsap development and the mountain-top mansion of a venture capitalist/computer science professor that overlooks Hoover Tower.

Anna could soup up the furnishings on her ground floor to get even higher performance out of the space. A few changes would reduce maintenance, make the space even more flexible, simplify entertaining, slash precious minutes off the time it takes to get a meal on the table, and conserve the personal energies of aging owners. First, use the freestanding counter as the eating space it was designed to be. The original freestanding kitchen counter units of the Fifties echoed the mass lunch room of the time, where dozens of customers were dealt daily specials by waitresses moving faster than the eye could see. The counter is a vulgar amenity that performs in vulgar, efficient ways. Add a good set of stools, preferably with flat seats. Second, set a Magical Sliding Castor under each foot of every table and chair. Doing so will transform the dormant barnacles of nineteenth century home furnishing, like a big soft sofa, into the living amenities known in France and Italy as “mobilia”, or movables. 

With the “movables” restored to their original function, redundant side tables can be subtracted from the room. Stools make good substitutes. A transit case, aka foot locker or wooden chest, makes a good place to elevate feet, set a snack, or seat a visitor when the room is full. I favor placing the dining table close to the hearth and serving a meal on trays toted from the counter. In this climate, a nice soak in infrared while doing sedentary tasks is relaxing and comforting. With all furniture on Sliders, it’s easy to reconfigure a room in a couple of minutes, making it easy to pull the table close to the counter to enable a more formal meal. That’s what the original medieval hall was like, until career opportunities in London lured away the house carls who had set up and knocked down the board and trestle between meals. Building flexibility into an arrangement essentially quadruples the value of the space for almost no expense.

Anna’s house shares another quality with the Port Orchard and San Carlos places: there’s a long view from the food prep area to a far wall set with a generous flat panel video display. Digital video affords a feast of quality visual information that displaces the endless sequence of tiny, static focal points of the conventional knick-knack. Anna’s place is visually slick, spare and rational without being stark. 

Interestingly, Anna accumulated a significant collection of traditional European porcelain figurines over her working life, but hasn’t gotten around to unpacking them in the new space. She liked the idea of setting up a traditional cabinet of curiosities in her personal office. Glass-fronted display cabinets secure fragile artifacts and protect them from dust. I’d line one wall with units from the Great Big Northern European Home Furnishings Chain and set up a HEPA air filter in the room. I’d think about lining the cabinets with mirror, not expensive, installing battery-powered lighting, and sealing the doors to keep the contents clean. The porcelains were produced by competing principalities early in the industrial revolution. Presumably, they were a hot medium in their day, as computer games are in this day. In the Middle Ages, such figures were an extravagant expression of culinary skill, molded of marzipan and set on formal tables as edible decorations. I suppose these origins explain the saccharine quality of much of the porcelain.

The recent visit was my first experience of architecture that devotes half the main floor to automobiles. I suppose the arrangement echoes the ancient bower/houseplace design of an English cottage, where the cow supplied the heat. The building also reflects traditional estate architecture where the ground floor of the building could be dedicated to production and the upper floor, aka first floor or piano nobile, reserved for family and leisure. The master suite upstairs is generous enough to use as an apartment. The master bathroom itself is generous enough to use as a studio apartment. Setting the bed close to a corner of the master bedroom and adding a small table and a couple of flat-seated chairs would complete the suite. The French use chairs as bed tables. Great Big Northern’s cordless solar task lights simplify illumination and leave a room free of high-maintenance tethers.

The roughly 2400 square feet of this new building cost the same per month as 200 square feet of view pod on Capitol Hill. The site is close to shopping and medical and might be manageable without a car, or at least with only one car, if delivery services are factored in.

There is a simple but telling element in the architecture: the hand sinks in this house are mounted on the wall to speed maintenance.

More after the jump.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Resolve It Or Leave It Out

Aaron Copeland photo courtesy Flickr user The Hills Are Alive"
I studied commercial illustration with a fellow who knew his way around space and time: he could also pilot multi-engine jet planes and perform rope tricks.  One comment has stayed with me: looking at one of my clumsy layouts, he said, “Resolve it or leave it out.” In retrospect, the critique clearly encouraged my uncertain hand as it hovers over the Goodwill bag and recycling bins.

Christmas was wonderful and surprisingly sane. The household is tuned to the daily life of two persons. Guests put unusual demands on the kitchen and introduced a considerable number of new artifacts into the housekeeping mix. On Christmas morning, I realized that one of the main stressors of the holiday is the confusion introduced by unfamiliar and excess inventory. Simply discarding the excess right away cut a straight line through the maze.

More after the jump.