Monday, May 30, 2011


The unconventional design of this house has resulted in another little communication snafu. Last week I visited the welding shop where my steel is being fabricated. Steel columns hold up most of the house, everything except the Great Room and porch. And there are steel connectors that will sit on top of the brick columns in the Great Room and porch to hold the wood beams of the roof. Most of these steel columns and connectors will be seen in the final building, inside and out.

This is one fulfillment of a primary design principle of this house: honesty in construction. Instead of doing the usual (easy) thing and erecting a sloppy arrangement of stud walls and then hiding everything behind sheetrock, I challenged myself to be very intentional about the design and location of structural members, and then let them be seen.

I came up with a structural system of steel columns connected to wood beams in such a way that no structural walls are necessary. Yeah - I admit it - I'm poking a bit of fun at the whole structural stud wall trend in residential construction: there are stud walls all over this house, but not a single one is structural. A hurricane could blow every stud wall off this house, exterior and interior, and there would still be all the steel columns holding up the roof. The stud walls in this house serve only as space dividers. But MOSTLY (I promise) it's about giving the building a thoughtfully crafted skeleton and being honest about what it is.

Exposing the structure opened up a whole other layer of design work. The proportions of steel plates and columns, and even bolt hole spacings, became design problems that I put to my eye and made consistent with the visual themes of the rest of the house.

This is why I was worried when I walked into the welding shop and saw some of the steel connectors they had put together. To cap the ends of the steel tubes they welded a steel plate to each end - all fine so far - but then cut the four corners off of these plates, resulting in a little dip at the end of each column - NOT part of the design. I pointed this out to the welder, and we had a conversation something like this:

Welder: This is how we do structural steel; if it's not exposed, what does it matter?
Me: It IS going to be exposed.
Welder: You mean this is decorative steel??
Me: No, it's structural; it's holding up my house. But it's also visible. So I guess it's structural AND decorative.
Welder: I wasn't told this steel was exposed. I'd have to charge a lot more for decorative steel work.
Me: Didn't you get a set of drawings?
Welder: No, just the one sheet showing the steel.

So that was my lesson on the difference between "structural steel" and "decorative steel," at least as the terms are understood by the welding trade. Buildings these days so seldom expose their bones that "structural steel" is assumed to be invisible, and "decorative steel" is assumed to be non-structural. I think authentic and honest design requires these to be one and the same.

Later in the day the welder called me to say he put some extra weld in the column corners to fill in that dip I didn't like, and that he'll grind the welds down so they'll blend with the rest of the column - apparently for no extra charge. Oh, the little things that can make an architect's day.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Let's Take a Ride

Here's a first attempt at a video tour of the project, starting in my apartment, commenting on the architecture along the two-mile ride to the site, and finally giving a walking tour of the house. Maybe it works. Or maybe it just shows why I prefer writing.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Space in the Center

A group of friends visited the site with me recently and two of them stopped for a while in front of this brick wall. They were surprised by the patterning, and asked how I came up with it.

Since another "square in the center" is currently being enclosed - the courtyard inside the porch, or cloister (below; the first was the center of the Great Room) - I thought I would reach back for a moment and write about this visual theme, which is one of the first I developed for this house.

It can rightly be called a "leitmotif," since it is a recurring and guiding theme for the entire design - not just all the brick patterns, but also the planning of the whole house. In construction it showed up first in the brick walls: a central square with a square at each of its corners, and four longer bricks extending up, down, left and right. I spoke about this in an earlier post as a modified nine-square grid. "A space in the center" is a distinctive trait of this grid, as opposed to a four-square, which centers on an intersection of lines.

I explained to my friends how this design reflects ancient temple and church architecture: the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle and temple was a perfect square, the dwelling place of God, the "central," most important space of the building. Secondary and tertiary spaces radiated outward from this square: the Holy Place, a porch and a courtyard. A thousand years later cruciform cathedrals featured a square of space where the nave and transept intersect, above which is the highest volume in the building, and from which the arms of the church (the building and the people), explode in all four Cardinal directions. So in this simple brick symbol in my wall I see the central square as God's dwelling place, a centripetal, inward space of stasis, from which the centrifugal happens, an explosion of his glory into the world, through his creation, words, and people.

All this is true, but later I realized I forgot the first meaning I imagined for this symbol. I thought of each of these abstract "stars" as individual believers. This fits with the above explanation, in that the hearts of believers are dwelling places for God, therefore symbolized by a square, as in the tabernacle. Radiating from this divine center is everything else that we are, the four at the corners static and seeming to hem us in (suggesting all that imprisons us), and four accelerating outward (where we've allowed God to free us).

It is fitting then that the longer arms become the connecting points to other "believers" in the pattern. There is a group (a church!) of these symbols in each brick wall, between the windows, all linked to each other through their long arms. And in the portion of the wall above the windows, which I imagined as the heavenly realm, the symbols don't just link to others in the same wall, but also to the others on other walls, around the corners - suggesting the merging of all churches into one in the next world. 

(Comparing this drawing now with the photos above makes me remember a line I wrote in my journal long before construction started: "Can't wait to see it in color and the sun.")

At some point I also imagined each of these symbols as a church, or family of believers - the central square being Jesus in our midst whenever we gather in his name; the surrounding squares identical to it because we are "little Christs"; the exploding rectangles our going into all the world.

And et cetera. So here again is a suggestion of "infinite entendre." A good symbol says many things at once, and some are not translatable into words. If words could do the job, images would not be necessary. Likewise, if I could speak or write everything on my heart, I would not be building this house. I want to suggest those portions of God's majesty that don't fit into words.

"A space in the center" is a theme I wrote down in my sketchbook rather early on in the design process, and it has informed even the smallest details. I didn't want a line or a point to occupy a center, but rather something that suggested area or space. So there is never a mortar joint at the mid-point of a wall; it's always a brick (you'd be amazed how hard that is to do consistently). There is never a bolt in the middle of a header or board; fasteners are arranged to let the space of the wood occupy the center.

In fact I saw this visual theme as so central to the house design as a whole that I made it into a logo for the title block of my drawing set:

If you use a magnifying glass (as one builder told me he actually did) you can see that I didn't make this image with lines, but with words.

It's a string of verses describing visions of architecture, a calling to build, God's words on buildings, ending with a question from God to me: "Are you the one who should build?"

Okay, so the courtyard. Well, first an update on the damage I've done to my neighbors' properties. My next-door neighbor's driveway cracked, recall, when my concrete pump truck drove over it. Below is the repair, still wet.

And my across-the-street neighbor got a good chunk of his yard torn up by my sewer/water tap guys, since the sewer is on his side of the street. We went over all this with him months ago, but still I imagine this was a bit of a shock to come home to.

Now the courtyard. The slab has been poured and dried around this "space in the center," and the big change this week is the porch columns going up:

And then they got taller:

The tallest columns now are at their full height. I can't even touch the top brick. At first they looked too tall, but then I realized they are the only full-height elements on site so far. The stone and brick walls around the Great Room will be twice this tall when complete, and the rest of the house walls will be several feet higher. Besides, even these 9-foot columns are dwarfed by the trees inside that square of space they surround.