Sunday, December 11, 2011

Conversations with the Sky

Praise God in his holy house of worship,
Praise him under the open skies
Psalm 150:1

Or in this house, do both at the same time. The metal frame that will hold nine individual skylights over the Great Room was installed last week. This is the strongest statement of the nine-square, space-in-the-center theme in the house. The first place this theme shows up is in the brick walls, repeated around the exterior of the Great Room.

I originally planned to have a glass company build this skylight as a single unit - grid, glass and all - and just ship it to the site. The price quotes I got for this ranged from $6,000 to $10,000, which was quite a bit higher than my original estimate. Also these companies recommended a much steeper slope for the skylight than I wanted; they wouldn't offer a warranty with less. Yet another concern was how in the world to get this nearly 10 x 10 foot skylight unit up over my 14-foot walls to be set in place over the Great Room. With nearly 100 square feet of double-pane laminated glass, I think we may have needed a crane.

So I started exploring the option of building the skylight out of individual components: a welding shop would make a metal tube frame with the nine-square design to span the opening, then the framers would build wood "curbs" on top of the metal frame so that residential skylights could be installed on them. This is the detail I came up with for the curbs and gutter over each tube:

I count it as a miracle that I was able to use standard sized skylights from Velux to fit these nine holes. The overall opening was not sized for Velux skylights, of course. So I was expecting to have to spend the $100 extra per skylight to get custom sizes to fit these openings. But with some careful adjustment to the curb detail I got a standard Velux unit to work. Nine of these turned out to cost about $1,750 - and they could be installed as flat as my heart desired. There was a little up-charge to get laminated glass, which I found out was a code requirement - any glass installed higher than 12 feet above the floor has to be laminated. (Thankfully, the skylights over the bedrooms are not that high.)

Then I got a price from a local metal shop to fabricate (and polish, and deliver to the site) a nine-square frame of 4 x 6 aluminum tubes: $1,450.

So that's a total material cost of $3,200. Even if I add another thousand dollars for the extra hardware and framing labor, I'm still getting away with this skylight for at least $2,000 less than I would have with a pre-built unit.

There was still the task of getting the aluminum frame up to the rooftop - without scratching the now polished aluminum, or knocking bricks off my wall. Turns out this frame weighs the same as I do, 160 pounds. (On a related note, before construction started I counted all the bricks in the columns of the courtyard for pricing and came up with exactly 1,976 - my birth year. I think I will refrain from counting anything else for fear another number will pop up.) My framer and I talked over this hoisting task and we came up with a plan. I didn't get to see this plan carried out because I had to be at work, but when I stopped by later I noticed that it mostly worked: the frame was in place, but a few bricks were missing from the top of one wall, seen in the background of this photo:

But that's an easy fix, a small price to pay to have this shimmering piece of metal in the ceiling.

Then the wood gutters and curbs were built. I detailed a slight slope into the tops of the curbs just to be sure water would run off the glass.

I think a primary failure of today's architecture is its relationship with the sky. Roofs are designed, as so many other things these days, to be merely practical. They seem to speak bluntly, "Block all that comes from the sky - rain, snow, sunlight, starlight. It is the enemy."

Even the most thoughtful and innovative architecture of the modern era points us away from the sky, from Le Corbusier's immensely influential flat floor plate concept, mimicked by just about every highrise building in the world:

Domino House prototype, 1914-15

to Frank Lloyd Wright's house designs that explode horizontally into the landscape while remaining low-slung vertically, hugging the ground:

Ward Willits House, plan, 1901

These architectures lock our gaze and our mobility into primarily horizontal paths; we are encouraged not to look up. In these cases I think much more than the practical is at issue; I see them as expressions of the secular view of nature held by the designers - a reverence for the natural world but disinterest in God. Perhaps inadvertently, much Modern architecture expresses its disbelief in Heaven and God by cutting itself off from the sky. Despite all the attempts over the last few centuries to secularize nature, we still see the sky as a symbol of Heaven. We still look up to talk to God. I think this is how God wants it.

When we look further back in history we find more architecture that responds to the significance of the sky. Cathedrals stretch their space vertically far more than they need to to accommodate human bodies, and let sunlight stream in from vast expanses of glass far above our heads.

Beauvais Cathedral, France, 13th century

If a dome is used, the base of it is punctured with so many holes that it seems to float.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey, 4th century

These kinds of buildings explode upward more than outward. Even if light is not admitted, domed, arched, or coffered ceilings highlight the importance of the vertical, give manifestation to the paths of spirits and hearts and prayers traveling from earth to heaven and from heaven to earth.

Other opportunities for a building to converse better with the sky open up when we reconsider the design of the roof surface. How exactly will rainwater flow off of the roof? And, is the roof accessible to people? Again, today these questions are usually answered in merely practical ways: "Get water off as fast as possible, put gutters everywhere, and... why would you want people up there?" My roof is designed to shed water, of course, but it also slopes slightly enough for people to stand on it comfortably. Early on in the design process my thought was this: "I have to build a structurally sound surface up there anyway; why not put guardrails around it and make it a floor?" In part it just seemed to make sense to get more use out of that surface. But it's also about seeing our surroundings from a slightly different perspective. You get a different view of nature and the neighborhood from the rooftop. And of course, you get a better view of the sky.

The roofing, flashing and gutters for my roof are in full swing. Gutters slope down the center of two wings of the house and out through the parapet wall. The roofing itself is a rubberized membrane. I intend to build a "floating" wood deck over this membrane for a walking surface.

The two sections of roof over the kitchen and bedrooms are nearly complete. The Great Room roof will be next, and the metal roof for the courtyard will be last.

Ever since framing was completed I have become very nervous whenever rain was in the forecast, because of the damage water could do to the unprotected beams and joists and plywood. But seeing these gutters extending through the wall has made me excited for the first big rain after the roof is finished, when waterfalls pour out three sides of the building. I intend to place barrels under these spouts to capture and reuse rainwater.

So perhaps another way to describe this quest to converse well with the sky is just to say it's about making good use (practical and spiritual) of whatever comes out of it - water, sunlight, or views of the heavens.

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