Saturday, July 20, 2013

The House From Outer Space

Anyone who has ever toured a lot of houses with a real estate agent has probably had at least one of them point out the windows in the home and make a comment something like "Windows are the eyes of a house," intending to communicate something like "Look at the view," or so we would hope.  Sadly, often the comment could be a little too literal because some houses have faces!  Okay, you have to use your imagination, but if you look around, especially in new developments, you will see the symmetry of the human face on the facade of quite a few homes--two eyes, one on either side of a nose or mouth.  An alien has landed in the neighborhood and it is waiting...waiting for some landscaping to soften the disconcerting effect observant passers-by might have of being watched by an inanimate object.

Dormers can be especially scary when they are too large and rise up a little too high--it can be the mutant frog effect if the dormers are rounded on the top.  Pointy, skinny dormers can make the house look haunted, possessed by a tortured soul.  If the dormers are too small or the roof too large the effect might be that of little pimples popping up on a large forehead.  Yeah, you have to use your imagination, but if you see a house that strikes you as ugly, when it is obviously trying very hard to be impressive, just look at it and try to figure out why.  Often it is a matter of proportion that is out of scale with everything else.  Don't get us started on fake dormers--all we can do is ask "Why, why?"  All dormers should be real, functional and add light and space to the room they are in and charm to the home's exterior.

An example of a house trying to be something it is not is what we call "The Tract House Palace."  This is a little house on a little lot trying to be a big house.  Some features of this house are the double-height entryway with a giant light fixture hanging like the pendulum of doom from the entry roof, huge multi-paned windows that extend all the way to the roof line and all the way to the corner of the house with no grace space around them--every feature is large and overpowering in scale.  Think of those cute little dolls that are so popular with little girls right now that have the big heads, big eyes and lips, and big hair on top of an impossibly skinny little body.

Speaking of dolls, we have heard some tract houses referred to as "Doll Houses" and many of them are virtually identical to all the houses around them.  Some are in developments with covenants that obviously require the use of the same roof-lines, shingles and brick color.  With the curvy, confusing street layouts, how would you ever find your own house?  Even the mail boxes are the same.  The obvious solution is to park a Hummer in the driveway or a sexy little red sports car, perhaps--a car that says "This Is Me!"

Seriously, we know that tract houses have their place in providing affordable housing that can be quickly built to serve areas that are experiencing a surge in population and that some are better than others.  But there should be some rules--No fake dormers, no fake shutters, no ripple roofs just for the fun of it, watch your symmetry and proportion so that your house doesn't look like an alien from outer space.  That's all.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Better Safe Than Sorry

The tornado in Moore, Oklahoma that destroyed two elementary schools, causing many injuries and the deaths of 7 children, brought the issue of safe rooms in schools to the forefront of the discussions on school security.  Corbin & Merz Architects strongly believe in planning ahead for this type of natural disaster that is all too common in our state, especially in the springtime afternoons when school is still in session or after-school sports and activities are scheduled.  We have recommended the inclusion of safe areas for every school we have built and most, though not all, school officials have agreed that this is a money well spent and less expensive to include in initial planning than trying to do later. It's better to be safe than sorry.

Our new school under construction  in Mustang, Oklahoma, Canyon Ridge Elementary on Sara Road, has 5 hardened rooms, one in each of the 4 pods, and a fully hardened music room in the center of the school.  We watched the weather reports anxiously as the recent storms whirled down I-40 past El Reno toward the western suburbs of Oklahoma City, worrying about our relatives and friends--and our school.  Fortunately, none were hit, and we were glad we had done due diligence in the planning for safe rooms in Canyon Ridge.  It's better to be safe than sorry.

Another elementary school we have planned for North Enid, Oklahoma has two long hardened corridors that span the length of the school on two sides for quick access if necessary.  While still facing a bond issue, patrons will surely welcome the inclusion of safe areas for the most precious assets any family has--their children.  It's better to be safe than sorry.

The  classroom addition at Enid High School has a hardened corridor.  So does Pleasantvale Elementary School  in the the Pioneer School District located just east of Enid.  We designed the safe areas in these schools because we know this one thing  for a fact--It's better to be safe than sorry.

Oklahoma Bible Academy has two safe areas.  The original building, the Academic Center, has a hardened corridor, and when we added the the Advanced Learning Center we designed the connecting corridor between the two areas with hardened construction as well.  The school people at OBA specifically requested these areas be included in the planning because they know that it's better to be safe than sorry.

This architecture firm, Corbin & Merz Architects, has always recommended areas such as safe rooms or hardened corridors in schools as an important part of  planning simply because believe that when it comes to tornadoes, it's better to be safe than sorry!

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Little House

The Little House is a unique challenge to an architect--if only because a Little House often (but not always) has a little budget and possibly a small lot to build upon, while the prospective owner has big ideas and expectations.  After all, they would not have called us if this were not so!  Fortunately, we appreciate the challenge of designing livable Little Houses--houses that live big but are economical to build and/or efficient in use of space.

One of our favorite Little Houses is actually built in the center of a very large wooded lot.  With two bedrooms and a galley kitchen, it has great views from its large windows and is surrounded by a spacious deck.  It is an artist's house, and the deck leads to a small rustic studio where the artist can create her beautiful pottery just steps away from her main house. Everything in the house is skillfully edited, including the displays of paintings and pottery, so the rooms seem quite spacious.

We believe that bringing the outdoors inside with big windows is one way to make a Little House seem bigger--natural light has a way of illuminating walls with an ever-changing quality of shimmer and shadow that adds interest and beauty to interiors.  Beautiful landscaping, even on a small lot, gives the Little House a setting that provides charm and privacy and something to look at besides the driveway and street. Outdoor living space--patios for  for cooking outdoors, flower beds for gardening, and porches or patios for relaxing on nice days can make a Little House live larger.

A few years ago we had the opportunity to design a prototype "low-income" Little House that could be built economically, but would have everything a family  of four or more might need or want in a home.  Square footage would have to be limited to keep costs down.  The plan was basically a "great room" with kitchen  on one end and bedrooms and bath along one side.  The carport had built-in storage on the end.  The plan was nicer and had more amenities than most apartments we ever lived in!

The most luxurious Little House we have ever designed is elegant country house set on a small bluff in the middle of a rugged Oklahoma pasture.  It is solid stone and when the wind blows, it does not move, not even a tiny creak is heard--it is stone solid!  The front entry to this country cabin is very practical--leading to a mud room/laundry, then a pantry, then a great room for living/dining that includes a state-of-the-art galley-type kitchen/bar with top of the line appliances, including an under-cabinet wine refrigerator.  The house has one bedroom and bathroom and four gas fireplaces.  Two are outdoors, one at the front entry, and a big fire pit on the back patio. Inside are fireplaces in the sitting area of the main room and one in the small library just off the back patio.  All the lighting, furniture, artwork, bedding, and even the kitchen accouterments are carefully chosen, simple, but luxuriously beautiful--a testament to good taste.  There is a bunk-house close by for guests, and a large multi-vehicle garage/storage barn, all in matching stone, and with the Little House they form a courtyard enclosure that gives a sense of security to the remote setting.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Big House

The Big House is very much in vogue in these booming economic times and we have been fortunate enough to design a few of them.  It is quite a responsibility to design a Big House to meet the needs and requirements of a specific family, whether large or small, not to mention having to stay within the building easements on the lot!

We have designed Italian villas with tile roofs and stone floors, as well as English country houses with lots of level changes and  large country kitchens where the lady of the house reigns instead of a professional cook, but the uniquely indigenous style here in Oklahoma is "The Ranch House" with a casual eat-in kitchen as well as a dining room large enough for a whole crew of harvest hands.

Whatever the style, The Big House will have at least two living areas--a "formal" living room, often furnished with brocade sofas, glass tables and fancy lamps and a "family room" finished and furnished with tougher stuff.  Sometimes the children of the house have an entire wing of bedrooms and baths, often with a rec room of their own for ping-pong, loud music and teen-age parties.  Parents will then have a suite of rooms at the opposite end of the house with sound insulation, stereo and television suite, compartmentalized his & her closets, and spa bath and shower rooms, also his and hers.

A close acquaintance of ours has a Big House designed by a "famous architect" with the children's wing and the grownup's wing separated by a common living and reception area. He has turned the now vacant children's wing into a home office with guest accommodations, so a good design can have flexibility for the future when a Big House is no longer needed for a big family.  Other owners of Big Houses have big parties and lots of house guests.  Some have big extended families with grandchildren, in-laws, and visiting friends.  So the Big House can have quite a bit of flexible use after the big family for which it was originally built moves out.   

When Architects Travel...

When architects travel, what do they do for fun?  The answer is easy--they visit buildings--the famous landmarks where all tourists go, but also the indigenous types such as little villas crawling up a steep Italian hillside, one almost on top of the one below, with a single narrow footpath curving up to each  front door.

We were struggling up one of these well-trodden paths in Florence, yellow dirt packed as hard and appearing almost as impervious as stone, following a small group of students from Minnesota (or so we assumed--one was wearing a maroon UMinn sweatshirt), stopping every now and then to catch our breath and take a picture, when the whole group of us was overtaken by a very fit old lady carrying a bag of groceries. She unlocked her door, gave us smug little smile, and closed the door behind her.  The kid in the sweatshirt shook his head in disbelief--"People actually livin' here!"  It was just that perfectly picturesque, like a movie set, with a panoramic view of the Pitti Palace and city below.  The Italian lady viewed this scene, famous in travelogues of Florence, every day from her window--along with sweaty tourists, struggling upwards just inches away from her home!

Architects also sketch buildings--we have seen sketch book displays of the drawings student architects on European tours have made and they are beautifully evocative records of  the landscapes and buildings they have visited.  Along with a camera, Ken, like the student he once was, and really, still is--carries a sketch book that he takes,  not just on vacations, but to job sites, visiting relatives--everywhere he travels.  He has sketched miner's shacks in Colorado and New Mexico and has photographed seemingly blank walls to capture a texture or a color.  This usually elicits a funny look from passers-by, but once in a while, you meet a person who understands.

In New Orleans, he photographed a featureless, but well-worn pink stucco wall--only it wasn't just a plain baby pink blank wall, but also patinated with shades of green, brown, orange--all superimposed on a texture that had seen years of humidity and traffic, both foot and vehicular.  Two men crossing the street noticed and approached us.  "Are you an artist?" the older man asked.  Ken answered that he was an architect.  "That's what I told my son--that guy has to be an artist or an architect!"  Two tourists themselves, they obviously appreciated the pink wall as well.  It's always fun to meet kindred spirits who appreciate a mere color.

Architects often make pilgrimages to visit famous buildings by famous architects. Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, the Greene Brothers, I.M. Pei, Fay Jones, Gaudi, Corbusier, among others--all have followers, and we take every chance we get to visit their buildings on our travels.  But the architect we have gone out of our way to see is Louis Sullivan, and his banks are the specific buildings we have visited--in very small towns, where they know why you are there if you are not related to someone who lives there.

While famous for many things--he was a pioneer of the skyscraper, he coined the phrase "Form follows function", he was one of ten architects chosen to design a building for the 1893 World's Fair--he died poor.  The banks are the products of his declining years and were considered small, unimportant commissions, but today, they are called "Jewel Boxes." One of the prettiest is the Merchants' National Bank in Grinnell, Iowa, a small central Iowa college town, and our tour of the bank was a special adventure.

It was late afternoon and the bank was closed when we arrived in Grinnell.  Standing across the street admiring the intricate terracotta ornament surrounding the entry, we noticed that a man driving by was looking at us.  He drove around the corner and parked, got out of his car and approached us.  "Are you an architecture student?"  Ken told him he was an architect, whereupon the man offered to give us a tour of the bank.  As a retired president of the bank, this 90-year man was given the perk of having his own key for the building and he said when he saw us standing exactly where every architecture student stands to get the best view, he knew we were on a pilgrimage especially to see this building.

Inside the building, the wall of slim, tall stained glass windows was even more spectacular.  It was brilliantly illuminated by natural light--the colors were warm and glorious.  The details of the interior were lovely, but it was the shape and proportion of the building itself that made it unique and special--solidly sited on a street corner, simple, rectangular, in a gorgeous purple-brown brick mix that looked artistically done, contrasted with the lighter color of the terracotta ornament around the round window above the entry.  The blue stained glass within this oculus (I guess that's what you would call it) rivals any we have seen in cathedrals anywhere.  And the terracotta design itself is a wonder of interwoven squares on point, squares set square, and circles, all entwined with delicate, little leafy fronds and ovals and little borders and trims almost as detailed as a medieval embroidery design.  Something about the contrast of solid and delicate, fancy and plain, really has the touch of genius about it, keeping in mind that the solid is perfectly proportioned and that the plain brick has those inspired, but very subtle variations in color.

This building, and the other jewel box banks are works of art that would be prohibitively expensive to replicate today.  How wonderful that they are being preserved, all eight of them, and are still around today and available for architecture students to visit and see how a master of proportion, scale, materials, color and ornament created buildings that are still functioning as banks today.