Thursday, March 31, 2011

Little details

It's odd in the way we sometimes focus on the big. Humans can take in so much, process and move on. We watch screen within screen within screen, and not bat an eye - clever. We'll stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon for fifteen minutes, scan and leave fulfilled - sad. We will also scrutinize the Heavens and contemplate all that we can and can't see - imaginative. Sometimes, however, we miss the micro in favor of the macro. This detail fits in the micro category, at least in terms of a house. Here are three photos of the ubiquitous drip edge, meant to shed rain water from the top of door and window trim. No it isn't the Heavens or the Grand Canyon, but it is a lot more tangible.

This drip edge, the over hanging lip, has protected this
window for 125 years. The proportions are in keeping
to the heavy window trim.  Very pleasing.
Here is a new drip edge milled to match the existing. It was
made from scrap pressure treated wood and took
approximately five minutes to complete.
This house was renovated using stock, off the shelf, material.
The drip edge, in comparison, appears anemic. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

American psyche

If we probed the shared psyche of the American mind there is a building form that stands at the apex, the Log Cabin. The thought of a log cabin wells a vision of the first European settlers, using the abundant resource of an un-molested continent or the frontiersmen heading west in search of a promised land. In both cases the new population would clear their staked land of tree and rock, plant essential crops and use the spoils of the clearing to build a house. Here is an updated cabin, designed by the Montana firm Prairie Wind Architecture, that carries the charm of the old with the comfort of now.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Real vs Ersatz 2

Metaphorically speaking, the windows are the eyes of a building. For owners without a conviction for preservation the temptation is, especially here in hurricane alley, to replace the older, non-impact resistant wooden windows for new, stronger and more efficient models. The argument from the renovator is, "the newer windows look the same and no one will be able to tell the difference". My retort "can too". You be the judge.

This 1860's house in Key West has
it's original wooden windows. Thin muntins,
wavy glass and thick sills.
Imperfect cylinder glass at it's best.
Here is a newer wooden double hung window placed into a small cigar
makers cottage. Thick muntins, vinyl inserts and ripple free glass. In addition
to the bad proportions of the sill and trim, the carpentry is extremely poor.
A new double glazed window in an 1890's Key West eyebrow house. It is
energy efficient but lacks charm with it's large perfect reflections. Additionally,
between the two sheets of glass is a faux muntin insert. Although we can see
this is the wrong window for a house of this age, you might also have noticed
that at some point in time it appears to have been a doorway.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Plants with lovely forms 2

Here ia another Florida native named the Keys Silver Palm. Although Coccothrinax argentata is not endemic, we like to call it our own. The silver, which is a common evolutionary outcome in plants, can be seen when the frond is turned upside down. The weeping habit of the fronds give an impression of a droopy slumbering plant that, with a little nudge, would straighten up and act like other palms. This palm is a cousin of the palm from yesterdays post, Thrinax radiata, albeit smaller and more delicate.

Coccothrinax argentata in my garden.

Coccothrinax argentata growing wild at Bahia Honda State Park
in the middle of the Florida Keys.

Bahia Honda State Park holds the winner for the
oldest Coccothrinax argentata in the United States,
which some estimate up to 200 years old.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Plants with lovely forms 1

When people from non tropical zones are asked about palm trees they invariably will go to the ones best known, Coconuts Palm (Cocos nucifera), Washingtonia Palm (Washingtonia robusta), Cabbage Palm (Sabal palmetto) and Date Palm (Phoenix dacctylifera). But with about 2600 species, and growing, in this plant family, one could spend a lifetime in study and still not have a handle on all the complexity. Now that nurseries today are growing a surprisingly large variety of palms, gardeners in the warm climes can become hooked on cultivating these uniquely formed flora. I enjoy the family members from this part of the world and will tend to use them more often than not in the gardens I design. Here's my favorite, the Florida Thatch Palm, Thrinax radiata.

The smaller scale of Thrinax radiata
lends itself to small planting areas.

Here are some very old specimens,
most likley over 50 years in age.

Friday, March 18, 2011

A little getaway

One of my favorite little buildings. The Maryland firm of Broadhurst Architects put together something special here, small, inexpensive, cozy (a romantic's dream) and attainable. This is a link to a post by Architectural Record, a wonderful source for what's being designed today.

Of course the locale and view add to the atmosphere.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Good job

They got it right. This greek revival house in Key West (more about greek revival in a later post) has it all. It buoys my senses to see owners making the extra effort to bring a piece of history to this level of renewal.

Beautiful proportion, classic white paint
 and perfect maintenance.

Although not seen often enough, good restorations
of these unique old homes are what make Key West so appealing.
The goal is to have them all done as well as this one.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Real vs Ersatz 1

In new construction, more and more, contractors are using modern alternatives to traditional building materials. This is, for most cases, a good choice because in many respects plastics and composites hold up better to weather and time. However, I always encourage my clients (sometimes with success, sometimes not) to use traditional materials on historic buildings in order to have continuity and to keep the structure 'honest'. Here are some examples of clapboard siding. Many people claim that composite siding, also known as cementitious siding, is indistinguishable from wood siding. Not true, please take a little closer look.

On this 130 year old example you can see the thickness of each
clapboard, the shadow line, and the inherent imperfection of the wood surface.

The new cementitious clapboard is thin, wavy and void of character.
When this product is used to replace siding on an historic home,
personality and charm is sacrificed.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A little deviation

I really can spend hours looking at photos of the work by the Seattle Wa. architecture firm of Olson Kundig Architects.  They have such clever designs that sometimes include large site made mechanical operations.

'The Brain'
Olson Kunig is not affraid to keep the raw building materials exposed.

'The Brain'
Note the industrial gear that raises and lowers the hanging lights.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The good, the bad and the ugly

As a designer I have an unusual interest in small details, a fence design, a doorknob style or almost anything. This interest is also directed at the construction of the building or it's subsequent alterations. Here is a compilation of three examples of porch decking, and looking at them makes me think of the story of The Three Bears, one is too big, one is too small and one just right. The traditional covered porch decking material here in Key West, as well as many other spots, is 1"x4" tongue and groove wood planking, blind nailed and painted (I'll leave paint colors for another post). In the period when these homes were made (1820's - 1930's) the wood of choice, or at least what was available, was cypress or a south Florida heart pine called Dade County Pine. Both choices were supplied from old growth trees and tended to be dense, straight grained and bug/rot resistant. Today those superior woods are hard, if not impossible, to find so pressure treated southern yellow pine has become the new available choice; un-treated pine has a very short life here of perhaps three or four years. Of course some home owners prefer and can afford more exotic woods, but for this post I'm only interested in the treated material. Standard lumber dimensions of a hundred years ago were nominal, meaning a 1"x4" plank was actually one inch by four inches. Today the 1"x4" we buy has been milled down to 3/4"x3-1/2" . Armed with this knowledge, when a porch deck is replaced on a vintage home, order 5/4" making it the full one inch thickness. Enough dimension talk, you can see from the photos which bear is the right bear.

1-1/2"x5-1/2" Very heavy feeling

3/4"x3-1/2" Too thin and unstable

5/4"x3-1/2" Just right

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A little clarity

In my previous post I talked about the hedge I designed using colorful plants. I used several variety of 'Acalypha wilkensiana' to get that effect. Here are two.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Don't worry about flowers

Colorful plants are used to add great accent to a dull garden but here in the sub-tropics we're able to take that approach to a higher degree. A few years ago I was hired to create a pool, patio and landscape plan for a newly built home in a lovely area of Key West. The house was very well designed and beautifully built but had little punch. There was also a desire by the owner/builder to not have a front fence, as is so common in town. My solution was to create a color packed meandering hedge that separates the street from the home entry. The result is that of year round color, a visual barrier and a unique streetscape. Because of infrequent flower production and varying light throughout the year this effect couldn't happen as successfully if I had used flowering shrubs. Createing a bold scheme as this may not be the right strategy for every home, especially one of great historical merit, but here it's a winner.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

When everything is a good thing

A few years ago I was lucky to have several visits to Skylands, a large home built on Mount Desert Island, Maine. Origianlly built by Edsel Ford in the 1920's and now owned by Martha Stewart, it is the epitome of excellent design using local materials, well planned siting and charming landscape. Although Ms. Stewart has done much with the house, including the creation of original garden elements that had never been built, most of the accolades go to architect Duncan Chandler and landscape designer Jens Jensen. The most striking effect (at least to me) is that the house wasn't placed at the highest point on it's sixty acres. Instead it was placed into the hillside by blasting ledge to accommodate the house, while at the same time helping supply the granite that forms the shell. Had the home been placed at the top, approximately thirty feet higher than it's present site, it would afford a better view, however, it also would have been visible from many vantage points in town or from the water. It would have marred the bucolic element that has made the area so famous. This was, it appears, a conscience decision to sacrifice the better ocean view for a greater aesthetic.
The nestling of the house into the carved hillside allows for a coziness that would normally be hard to achive for such a large house. It's seldom that I can't find something to critique, but as I look over all of my photos from those visits I'm still stymied to find a shortcoming. Granted there was a great deal of capital used to produce this elegant edifice, but it's more about what we can take away to find use in our own more modest circumstances.


View from the highest point looking out over Skylands

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Staying close to home

Local materials have an important place in the house and garden. I'm not always able to use the stone, tile or lumber that can be harvested or made close to the construction site (see previous post about 'Indian Block'), but when possible local products add a tone of regionalism. This ethos is particularly fitting in the garden, where native stone and plants help to define locale. Modern or traditional architecture equally benefit and, when used with proportion and scale, can fit seamlessly into the landscape. In addition to the aesthetic, local materials, like the local grown food movement, is a good environmental practice.

Above is my 'camp' entry in Maine and is comprised of stone, spruce, fern and moss (all local) and a somewhat shabby barn. I've also used White Pine needles as a paving material.

And here, back in Key West, I designed some decidedly modern steps using Key Largo coral stone. One of the few native stones available to us here at the end of the road.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

By the reef

This little house feature can tell you many things. Most importantly it tells you you are by the ocean, Key West in this example. This is known as a 'Mirador' and 'Widow's Walk' and it was built as an observation post to spot ships coming into port. It was also used to spot ships that had wreck-ed on the reef. Once spotted, the call would go out and a free for all would ensue with the winner being the first to arrive at the distressed ship and thus making the first claim to the salvage rights. The Mirador is the lower enclosed section with the shuttered windows on all sides. The Widow's Walk, a much more familiar term, is the open top platform with a  rail that surrounds. Notice on this nineteenth century example how low that railing is. Of course today that wouldn't pass approval with modern code. Present codes dictate 36 inches of height, leaving this 26-28 inch sample mighity short, and if that rail is removed the owner must replace it to the taller requirement. The message here is: Work with what you have. Restoration, not renovation, helps to set truly unique architecture apart from all that follows.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Good walls.....

If Robert Frost only knew. An existing wall makes this new garden look much older than it's two years. These 'Indian Block' walls were common in the US a hundred years ago but are hardly recreated today. To repair this wall I located a company that still makes these concrete molded blocks, albeit in a different size, and had them shipped down. The mason was a little perplexed but the end result is as it should be; retain and replicate materials whenever possible.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

It does the heart good.

For those of us who find great solace in things done well, here is a photo of a lovely little Key West 'Conch House'. The right materials and scale, very good workmanship and of course a beautiful Frangipani tree. I suspect the original owner, if he came back to life today, would find little different.

About Me

I am a landscape designer based in Key West, Florida and Surry, Maine. I place much attention with the house, not as an adjunct to the garden but as an integral element. This symbiotic relationship will always produce the best and most natural environment. The best description for my views on the relationship between the garden and the house comes from the naturalist Charles Keeler, “landscape design with occasional rooms in case of rain”