Author Archives: Steve Hall

About Steve Hall

I'm an architect inspired by the craft of architecture. I design with clients to develop building solutions expressive in modern form, material craftsmanship, and technology. My practice builds on thirty years of architectural and construction experience to serve clients in the Raleigh-Durham region of North Carolina.

Sketch 2016-05-01

sketch, 2016-05-01-ish, house space diagrams

sketch, 2016-05-01-ish, house space diagrams

Sketching is the fastest way to analyze three-dimensional relationships.

I usually rely on 3D virtual models to firm up the details, but my initial sketches form the foundation of thought that shape the rest of the process.

The above sketch is a house set on the side of a mountain in Black Mountain, North Carolina. It's a given that the structure and forms need to respond to the steep slope of the site. But an additional demand is that it also be accessible... useful with an age in place strategy for the homeowners as they become elderly and potentially too feeble to negotiate full flights of stairs at a time.

With these guidelines, I instinctively look for a scheme of half levels. This keeps intermediate flights between spaces at most six steps. It also balances the house across the site and minimizes the amount of deep cuts or fill areas that might be required of the topography. The above sketch are numerous quick looks at such a scheme.

It is important when creating series of spaces to understand their relationships. You can see abbreviations for the living areas scattered about the drawings. Hurried and loose sketches help keep the exploration fluid and flexible. Nothing is fixated until the entire scheme begins to come together.

A developed depiction of this concept can be seen in the 1934 Villa Muller by Adolf Loos, in Prague. For this early twentieth century Viennese architect, his crowning work was also his last. It is a rich example of his concept for multi-level floors within a simpler exterior, which he called Raumplan.

Villa Muller's exterior is a simple, unadorned cube. It was intended as the quiet, reserved public face of the house overlooking the city.

But the interior is an exuberant intertwining of spaces and materials connected by short half flights of stairs. Many, small, comfortable and intimate spaces are all tied together by paths and views into and across each other.

Below is a floor level diagram. It is difficult to understand in two dimensions so I've removed all the walls from the model and colored each floor uniquely. Except for the top floor (orange) and the roof, the two lower main floors actually have sections that ascend or descend from the neighboring section.

From the lowest, darkest basement level all the way up to the walkable roof, there are multiple sets of stairs connecting each quadrant of the house. Both stairs are centered under skylights on the roof so that natural light is filtered down through the entire house from above. It's a masterful scheme in just 3,400 SF.

Floor level diagram of the 1934 Villa Muller, by Adolf Loos

Floor level diagram of the 1934 Villa Muller, by Adolf Loos

For more images of Villa Muller, see this Google image search. Share: Facebooktwittergoogle_pluslinkedinmailFacebooktwittergoogle_pluslinkedinmail Follow: Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinrssinstagramFacebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinrssinstagram

sketch, 2016-04-12, Georgian details

Sketch 2016-04-12

sketch, 2016-04-12, Georgian details

sketch, 2016-04-12, Georgian details

Modern architecture is fundamentally about technology.

The industrial age ushered in new materials, science, math, and tools to enable humans to create power grids, ocean liners, airplanes, and highway systems. In architecture, technology resulted in steel structures, large sheets of glass, wood studs, plywood, indoor toilets, heating systems, and electric lighting. This was further refined in the middle of the 20th century with significant improvements in insulation, less hazardous paint, non-toxic plumbing, air conditioning, more efficient lighting, and the internet.

So why, now in an era where the world's fastest car is electric, do we still want to reference historical technology? I believe primarily this is because we disconnect architectural features from their relationship to technology.

The sketch above is one of my typical five minute explorations. This is exploration for an actual house in Raleigh where the client is interested in traditional detailing. The challenge is to create historically accurate references even though the home is built with construction methods fundamentally removed from the technology that evolved those details in the first place. Can this even be done? Should it be?!

Drayton Hall [Wikipedia.org]

Drayton Hall [Wikipedia.org]

As with any historically linked design, I start with a model. The 1740 Drayton Hall outside of Charleston, South Carolina, is the model for historical southern architecture. (Google image search for a lot more views.) There are also some Neo-classical models around, but Georgian is the first mature style of architecture in the south although few great examples exist like this one.

In the sketch, I began with Drayton Hall's basic form. The primary mass is a rectangle and the roof form is hipped with a gable only on the front. But that's the extent of progress when logic starts to break down.

Drayton's roof is actually double-hipped, with two different slopes. Notice in the far right of the sketch, an illustration of a roof kick. Maybe that is a way to suggest the double-hip without the complexity?

There is also a suggestion of synthetic slate. Although it is currently metal, Drayton's original roofing material was likely clay tile or slate. (Metal roofing wasn't used in America until the 1800's, when Drayton was re-roofed.) Modern slate roofs are rarely repaired with stone. They use a simulated phenolic slate that is lighter and has a 50 year warranty.

Also indicated in the sketch are quoins. These are vertical blocks defining masonry corners. They were used to define and stabilize masonry structures as far back as Rome. But today's masonry is effectively glued onto a wood framed building. Our codes don't allow brick to support a building so it is conveniently pasted onto the outside. There is no functional necessity for quoins.

The upper sketch also indicates flue extensions (pots). This is the classic English historical look, but Drayton Hall never had them.

Finally, notice the bottom right corner sketch--a garage door! Obviously fitting such a large scale opening into an historically derived building looks pretty ridiculous. Without steel and modern glass manufacturing techniques, 18th century windows were very small. The architecture didn't give voice for large openings. You can see in the lower left sketch that two garage doors are fitted in on the building left. But the historical building had nearly a full story of stairs up to the finished floor. It also has a downstairs cellar. Neither of these are conducive to our modern needs for drive-in garages and walk-in level main floors.

In a few minutes, the sketch highlights numerous difficulties with historical reference in current construction techniques. I'm not convinced it can properly be done. I'll write another article if the project takes off and we can successfully accomplish it.

For more information on authentic historical architectural styles of residential buildings in America, see A Field Guide to American Houses (Revised), by Virginia Savage McAlester for a thorough catalog. I have the original edition, but the revision is even better.

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sketch, 2016-04-11, post-and-beam foundation details

Sketch 2016-04-11

sketch, 2016-04-11, post-and-beam foundation details

sketch, 2016-04-11, post-and-beam foundation details

(A lot has happened since the previous article, and with little time to write, I thought I'd post some sketches of various explorations from the intervening period.)

This sketch is pretty typical of my usual process:  Multiple ideas and scales derived simultaneously. This keeps formal and material explorations coordinated and sensitive to the other.

First, in the upper left corner, there are two circles bisected by lines. If you look carefully, you'll notice that the left-most line is a simple dot-dash, the architectural symbol for center line. This represents the figural core of a thing, essentially its idealogical center. You can't actually see the center of a material, but we humans like to align materials by their center of being.

The second line, to the right of the first, is a double dot-dashed line. This is the symbol for property line, and represents the edge of a form, space, or property. We can touch this face and use it to define how big things are and when they touch.

Farther right, just past the middle of the sketch, you'll see these two line types expounded in a simple grid with two rectangular columns. See how these two line types are used? The center line (in the middle!) bisects the two columns while their edges are defined by the property line type.

Architecture is a constant play of idealogical alignment and physical material alignment. Our mind perceives beauty when forms are visually aligned. A series of exposed columns is aligned by their centers along a idealogical grid line, as in a Greek arcade or medieval cathedral nave.

But columns are rarely all the same size. Lower ones are bigger and upper ones smaller. Interior or exterior columns often differ in size. And most steel H columns have a major and minor axis which rotate depending on how they resist the building's bending in various directions. Simply aligning these can be difficult, but it becomes exponentially more difficult when attaching facades.

In this sketch, I was discussing a wood post-and-beam house and how its enclosure might work. You can even see some large scale spacial exploration within the same grid in the right-most portion of the sketch.

Finally, the lower left is a detailed look at the actual materials. This is a concrete footing pier for the timber frame above. A steel "T" connects the wood post above to this foundation form below.

Although a little series of exploration sketches like this might take just a minute or two, they may make key decisions that drive an entire project!

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Levittown

We've been looking at historical U.S. town plans, mostly based on some type of a grid. The plan structured growth so that development followed the grid. Parks and squares were designed into this form as the primary consideration for public space and a natural relief from the urban condition.

In Boston, on the other hand, centuries of expanding its isolated land mass developed haphazardly and left little room for the park. This problem was resolved by Fredrick Law Olmsted in the Emerald Necklace. In his scheme, the parks were found after the urban condition had already been established. In figure ground terms, they were leftovers.

Sketch of Levittown, NY

Sketch of Levittown, NY

Fast forwarding to about 70 years later, the car had become the most common mode of transportation, World War II had been won, and millions of GIs were home and ready to resume life with a baby boom and houses funded by the government's gratuitous mortgage rates. It took William Levitt and his sons less than two years to capitalize on the opportunity and break ground on his first ambitious neighborhood on Long Island for 17,000 homes, named eponymously, Levittown.

Much has been written about the eventual four developments that Levitt & Sons created and the countless more that were inspired by them. (This architect was raised in two.) The social impact of Levittown was profound. A few references regarding these cultural consequences are linked in the Notes below.

For now, let's see what we can discern from just the plan itself.

Initial plan of Levittown, NY

Initial plan of Levittown, NY

Obviously, Levittown had no grid. The town plan had been redefined into a weave of roads that reduced the lengths of sightlines and created random variations among homes that were very similar. Notice that no single road through the neighborhood connects to more than one main road. Shortcuts through the neighborhood to save time were discouraged by the design. Driving to nearly any home required at least one or two turns if not half a dozen or more.

Minimizing long, straight through roads also reduced the speed of traffic and its accompanying road noise and danger to children playing in yards. (And the street.) This is interesting, because the long road at the top of the plan was the Old Motor Parkway and the first motor parkway, a concoction of William K. Vanderbilt Jr. used for auto racing.2

Instead of a town center, the neighborhood was not connected to the rest of humanity other than via highway. Like a commune, the weave implied a more inward focus and fenced off outsiders. At the same time, new technologies in the car, radio, telephone, and television connected citizens more abstractly instead of face-to-face on the community's streets. Visual connections were minimized in favor of more abstract ones.

Even internally within the neighborhood, spacial connections were less formal. Houses never faced each other directly across a street. Neighboring lots were usually oblique at the front face to some degree and angular next door.

Levittown, New York today, via Google maps

The occasional school or park was circuitously secluded as far from the main roads as possible. Test this in the map above. How many turns does it take to get from the main road to the school in the center?

Planning like this reduced outsider use of parks since the were difficult to find. Theoretically, this also increased the neighborhood's sense of ownership. But the same design disconnected the larger community and its services, like police, fire department, school buses, and even the residents themselves. The developer's offices on the outskirts had to help new residents find their homes several times a day!

Clearly, the most important thing to the Levitts was the maximization of lots along roads that could easily be appended and woven around minor obstructions like retainage ponds, power lines, and existing motorways. You can see directly in the plan that financial interests outweighed any other social or community ones. This certainly made economic sense for the developer since no one would pay for any unsold areas. But compared to Savannah, Levittown and its imitators made obvious sacrifices of public space and parklands for thousands of residential units and private yards.

Would you expect the developer, with the primary financial interest in success, to have a romantic view of the planned neighborhood?

Levittown, 1947. A Report to Home Builders

Notes

1. The Long Island Motor Parkway, by Howard Kroplick and Al Velocci, Vanderbilt Cup Races.
2. Levittown: The Imperfect Rise of the American Suburbs, by Crystal Galyean.
3. Levittowners, a site dedicated to Levittown, Pennsylvania.

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Canopy Progress

I got a call to come take my first look today at the beginning fabrication of a canopy structure I designed. It's always interesting when you see a project taking shape in the "real world" that had only existed until then in your mind, on paper and in virtual space.

Canopy in progress

Canopy in progress

All along, this effort has been one of efficiency. As the requirements and parameters grew, so too did the structure. This is fully 50' long and 25' wide but supported on only two columns. If you drive around to various gas stations, take a look at how they are supported. Almost all of them these days are constructed with at least four columns since the two-column variety are easily blown over. (And central North Carolina does occasionally get 90+ mph winds when a hurricane blows in.) However, site restrictions meant this one simply could not touch the ground at four locations. So the narrow profile and trimmed corners grew out of these restrictions and make this narrow, wing-shaped teardrop with very little resistance to the wind.

For reference, below is my partial model of the project built months ago.

Canopy model

Canopy model

I always appreciate great craftsmenship. With the design parameters vigorously dictating the form, it took some careful, considerate detailing to even make the structure feasible. Skilled craftsmen ensure cleaner construction and the necessary coordination when everything has to work and fit like clockwork.

Canopy in progress

Canopy in progress

This type of complexity is a double-edged sword. It is difficult to design and difficult to construct. But it means less steel is used and a structure better suited for high winds. Stay tuned for updates...

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