Category Archives: Better

Porsche by Design

What does Porsche have to do with architecture?

1898 Porsche P1 electric

Dr. Ferdinand Porsche’s 1898 electric car, the “P1.”[ref] The front is to the left (note the steering wheel at top). The motor and slightly larger drive wheels are on the right, at the rear of the car, like his future designs for the original VW Beetle and the Porsche 911 model still sold today.

In 1898, Ferdinand Porsche designed his first automobile at just 22 years old. He drove it to win a 24 mile car race and finished 18 minutes ahead of second place, despite half the field retiring from technical issues. He called it the “P1,” as if to designate it the first in a long line of expected successors. The most interesting part? It was electric.[ref]

Porsche continues using numbers to identify models today. Although many have recently begun sporting names as well, enthusiasts still refer to the numbers because they more clearly explain the evolutionary results of development. This is striking because it acknowledges Porsche’s insistance on continually improving through an iterative development process. Models are not simply scratched each time new thinking comes along. Instead, model numbers are advanced or referenced to designate the trail of continuing exploration, investigation, and testing.

This is exactly how better architecture works.

Design begins even before sketching. Research and analysis are conducted on the site, the code, the budget, and the schedule before resolving aesthetics. (See Dream for some insights about this early process.) I begin by sitting down with clients to explore and survey the existing facts and discuss ideas before deciding what the building will look like.

Once these factors are properly considered, they begin to contribute to the design. A series of investigative revision cycles evolve the forms and materials within the context and bounds already established. The project grows and develops into maturity from a framework rather than jumping out of inspiration. The end isn’t reached until all the interests and concerns have been accounted for and balanced along the way.

1965 Porsche 904/6 prototype. Photo by SteveHallArchitecture.

1965 Porsche 904/6 prototype. Photo by SteveHallArchitecture.

Porsche’s iterative approach to design illustrates form following function as well as any example from architecture. Obviously, a high performance automobile can not just look fast. It must also be fast. This requires efficiency. To accomplish the purpose, both mechanicals and bodywork must be simple and reliable. Even in 1898, Porsche understood that performance is equally as important as finishing the race!

The cars above and below are only six years apart. There is a strong heritage in the later car from the earlier. How many visual similarities can you spot? Enthusiasts can quickly cite over a dozen. My photograph of the 1968 Porsche 908 model stitches them together even more closely. See any more? Email me and I’ll send you my list. You may even spot a few similarities to the VW Beetle!

1971 Porsche 917K. Photo by SteveHallArchitecture.

1971 Porsche 917K. Photo by SteveHallArchitecture.

Despite automobile design following what seems to be a pretty standard formula, Porsche proves that success is a constantly refining process. Just a few years later, at the end of an era in the 1973 oil crisis, the Porsche 917 became the most feared racing car in the world. With twice as much power as today’s Formula 1 and NASCAR entries, it was capable of 260 miles per hour despite pre-computer aerodynamics and materials. Fortunately, Porsche didn’t stop there.

2010 Porsche 911 GT3 R. Photo by SteveHallArchitecture.

2010 Porsche 911 GT3 R Flywheel hybrid with over 600 horsepower. Photo by SteveHallArchitecture.

Now more than a century after Dr. Porsche’s first electric, the company is still exploring. Two current models, deceptively called “hybrids,” create engine power with flywheels and braking in addition to more conventional hybrid battery and electric motor systems. The racing version above has five times the power of a Toyota Prius. The remarkable new Porsche 918 road car has almost seven times the power (a staggering 887 horsepower) at 78 miles per gallon!

As an architect, I find the processes for continual advancement by Porsche inspiring. Buildings and architecture have not progressed enough in a hundred years. There are many basic technologies that have not been incorporated into homes and commercial buildings despite the possibility of ten times energy savings. Would you join me in pursuing better design?

This article was inspired by my visit to the North Carolina Museum of Art exhibit entitled Porsche by Design. See my photographs of all the cars on display at my Porsche by Design Pinterest pin board.

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Big Problems Little Projects

Fabian Oefner's exploding paint balloons

Fabian Oefner’s exploding paint balloons (as seen on Wired)

Even tiny projects are rarely simple. The type I run into most often are so small that no architect has been involved. Unfortunately, the encounter is after it has unraveled. Then, my ability to proactively solve problems is limited, and the fix ends up being more expensive and time consuming.

In Code Check, I introduced some general areas of concern for a typical small project. I can illustrate three specific situations related to toilet fixtures that often crop up on projects in spaces constructed only five or more years ago.

As mentioned in the previous articles, codes are changing all the time. North Carolina discarded its customized accessibility code in 2009 to adopt the national code, ANSI 117.1. There are dozens of differences between the two.

Toilet clearance plan

Toilet clearance change

One of these is the required clearance beside an accessible toilet. The previous code required only 48″ clear around the toilet fixture. The lavatory was allowed to overlap the 60″ toilet clearance by 12″. But in the current code, the full 60″ must be preserved. This means that any single space bathroom completed just five years ago will very likely require adjustments to achieve compliance.

Unfortunately, this implies that either the toilet or the lavatory must be relocated along with several adjacent walls, toilet accessories, and maybe the door. In one of my recent projects, the lavatory was adjacent an exterior wall where it couldn’t move farther away from the toilet. So the toilet had to be relocated instead.

This is expensive. It requires tearing out the concrete slab, existing wall, door, water supply, vent pipe, grab bars, and toilet accessories. The under-slab sanitary drain must be re-worked, and the concrete slab patched back. Then wall studs, drywall, toilet accessories, ceiling, paint, and a door are installed to get back to a finished condition. Sometimes even the lighting and HVAC venting must be re-worked as well. Expect something like this to cost $10,000 or more. All because of a 12″ code change!

Toilet grab bar dimensions

Toilet grab bar dimensions

Another recent code change is the additional requirement for a vertical grab bar on the side of a toilet. This is an inexpensive change since only the bar and its installation are required. On rare occasions, a toilet accessory like a toilet paper dispenser may interfere with the required location and also need to be adjusted.

Toilet fixture count requirements

Toilet fixture count requirements

The building code has a number of major occupancy classifications with further minor use type stipulations. Together, they specify the maximum quantity of occupants in any given space. The plumbing code then has a table which requires the minimum number of required plumbing fixtures based on this calculated occupancy. In the table excerpt above, the water closet quantities required are shown for the number of occupants in Business (B) and Mercantile (M) occupancies.

As you can see, the quantities differ significantly. A typical calculation would require only one fixture for a ground floor retail space of 15,000 SF. That same space, used for exercise, would require seven water closets.

Any change in occupancy requires recalculation of the required number of toilets. Even a seemlingly minor change can increase the number of required toilets, lavatories, or drinking fountains.

I would like to be able to help more building owners and tenants navigate code issues. It is simple to run just a short analysis and determine the feasibility of any required changes before signing a lease or starting a renovation!

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Pinteresting Wood Screens

Studio R / Marcio Kogan

Studio R / Marcio Kogan

Wood screens are a dynamic way to create a partition. Light is soft and filtered as it passes through it. The material itself is organic with grain and subtle texture that continue to be interesting up close or far away. I love them.

There is a tremendous strength in visual images without words. Pinterest is a powerful visual catalog of ideas. I have recently begun to assemble pins there on wood screens. There are over 300 images to date, so rather than post them all here, I’d encourage you to browse my Pinterest collection.


If you start a Pinterest account, you will be assembling pins in tiles like these from content all over the web. It isn’t necessary to upload your own content, although you can if you want. You can easily re-pin other people’s pins, follow one of their collections, or follow them.

Follow Steve Hall Architecture’s board Wood Screens on Pinterest.

A collection of pins is called a board. This is the real power of Pinterest. I make boards for topics of interest and can create them for any specific project or client, even a specific color.

Although it started out mainly for recipes and wedding ideas, Pinterest has grown rapidly. It now has over 70 million users and is ranked by eBizMBA and GeekWire among the top five most used social media sites, surpassing Twitter.

Take a look at Pinterest. If you are visually oriented, it may be a simpler tool to assemble your ideas than writing notes or bookmarks. I’ll be posting more of my finds and collections here in future articles. For now, please leave a comment below or contact me if you have a suggestion for a board.

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Water Heater… Fail

New water heater

New water heater

Almost everybody has a water heater story. I have four. Here’s my latest.

Just days before Christmas, there was a familiar pool under the water heater stand in the garage. It was hard to accept because I was pretty sure we had replaced it not very long ago. A little research in the file showed it had been replaced exactly six years and one day earlier. Of course, the warranty on the unit was… six years.

Apparently, recent Federal energy efficiency requirements mean that tanks have thinner metal than ever before. This reduced thickness ensures heat from the gas burner below is more quickly transferred into the tank and reduces the amount of total energy required to heat it. It also means that the tank will rust out faster. In my case, exactly as long as the manufacturer predicted.

There has been a lot of talk recently about tankless water heaters. They used to be called instantaneous heaters, but tankless seems to imply a reduced risk of exactly the kind of failure I had. There are more pros and cons.

First, tankless water heaters have been around a long time. Electric coffee brewers are essentially the same technology. Water is heated in small quantities as it is needed. The unit is sized to blast heat into water passing through a pipe as it flows. Instead of a coffee, they are scaled up for a home, adequate for a shower, clothes washer, or bath tub. This requires a tremendous amount of energy for just a few minutes, although theoretically cheaper than heating 40 gallons of water continuously day and night.

It is true that the energy savings is considerable. The trade-off is that the equipment and the utility service must be increased to manage the short bursts of gas or electrical energy required to heat the water so quickly. Current whole-home tankless heaters have 25 year warranties. These are mostly new models without testing long enough to prove it. Economically speaking, long warranties indicate untested or unreliable performance, from cars to electronics to water heaters. Incidentally, there are also fiberglass tanks with “lifetime” warranties that have been on the market for five years.

Water heater controls

Water heater controls

In our area, a lot of existing homes have gas tank water heaters. In the region’s building boom twenty years ago, gas was cheap and burning fossil fuels wasn’t considered as taboo as today. Electricity is now popular again because it is relatively more competitive. It is also more flexible across the many types of potential utility energy generating methods like coal, hydroelectric, and photovoltaic. However, converting a gas tank water heater to an electric tankless one requires an enormous (and expensive) electrical circuit to be added. Some homes don’t even have the electrical service to handle it.

To work around this limitation in retrofitting an electrical tankless heater, there are gas models. These still require electricity to ignite the fuels, but the circuit is small and reasonable. So the implementation becomes more feasible. But there is still one major drawback as I see it.

The great blizzard of January 2014

The great blizzard of January 2014

The most significant issue with instantaneous water heating is that if the utility service goes out for even a minute, the unit ceases to operate until the utility is restored. The best benefit of a tank is that momentary blips and even short outages don’t impact hot water availability. Even better with gas is that it remains functional throughout electrical power outages. Although we rarely have ice storms, the few memorable ones are enough to second guess depending on electrical utility power for hot water.

Another issue is cost. Tankless heaters are 50-100% more expensive. I got a good quote to replace my hot water heater at $1,800. The tankless gas heater would have been $2,700. Electrical tankless wasn’t even an option, my panel is simply not large enough.



For a new house, the equation is a bit different. Since the electrical service, panel, and circuiting can be properly sized from the outset, upfront costs are a much lower barrier to installing a tankless heater new. While it is important to size the unit to handle the expected hot water load for the likely extremes (such as multiple teenager showers and laundry loads), monthly energy savings may pay back in only a few years.

One final consideration is the actual configuration of the unit. My water heater failures have been restricted to the garage. But it is common in this area to find them located in attics over living spaces with poorly installed containing pans that create catastrophic water damage when they fail. A tankless type can reduce the size of the failure and can also save some space in the garage or attic since they are several times smaller.

I was fortunate that my water heater’s manufacturer decided to replace my water heater under warranty. It covered the cost of the unit even though I still had to pay $600 for the labor. For a repair, payback alone is unlikely to justify replacing a tank type with a tankless. However, instantaneous water heater disadvantages may be outweighed in new homes or in repairs by homeowners with environmental, energy saving, risk managing, and space making interests.

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Reset House Overlapping Spaces

Reset House Murphy bed

Reset House Murphy bed

This third part of the Reset House series introduces another space-saving strategy that buildings have employed since the classical era. The previous article on making space presented three architectural methods for creating more space. Now we’ll explore how one space can serve multiple uses.

A creative feature of the Reset House is its fold-away furniture, beginning with the Murphy bed. This is an ingenious early twentieth century invention that allows a bed to fold up against a wall to clear the floor beneath for additional habits of living. In this case, it doubles as a bench seat or futon. The word doubles is intentional—it highlights another effective increase of space for living within the same floor area.

Have a “Better” feature you think would improve the Reset House? Contact me and pass it along! The only rule is that it can’t increase Reset’s square footage. In the concluding article of the series, I’ll model and feature up to three of the best suggestions.

This concept is key to increasing usefulness. Intuitively, we know that many spaces serve more than one purpose. Sometimes, this is intentional, but often it is through the looseness of life (called clutter). But spaces can be ordered purposefully with multiple functions sharing part or all of the same volume. Furniture, screens, folding panels, and drawers adapt the space for its different purposes. Practically, these overlaps may double or triple effective use, although it is feasible for just one space to flex dynamically for all purposes1. The Reset House has a loft to accommodate more sleeping and storage, but beyond this, there is only one other distinctly separate space in the bathroom.

From the Roman Baths of Caracalla in AD 212 to churches today2, overlapping building purposes and high clerestories have been used to unify different spaces and bring in natural light. But it was modernist architects like Sullivan and Wright, Loos, Mies, and Le Corbusier that realized interconnected spaces in the design of houses. Wright is particularly notable in this regard for using both horizontal and vertically unifying volumes. Today, two story entries, living spaces, and open plans are expected3 and are directly derived out of this overlapping concept. The Reset House collects nearly all the living functions together in overlapping uses to make the most of its tiny area. The high window for the loft brings natural light down to the living level and creates an expansive view far beyond the enclosure.

Reset House ladder stair

Reset House ladder stair

While fold-away furniture certainly increases potential functionality, it must be well designed to minimize the impact of adjusting from one configuration to the other. The design in each state must also be resolved. For example, the photographic art over the seat is simply mounted to the underside of the Murphy bed to be visible when folded up. Fold away beds also create a bit of ease in making them up in the morning, too.

The ladder stair is exactly that: a combination stair and a ladder. The stair slope is identical to smaller step stools found in home stores, with the stringers larger to carry the longer span and serve as a bit of handhold. While more steep than a typical stair, it provides considerably more comfort than a true ladder to the loft despite the added expense. There is a true ladder portion on the wall above to continue handholds to the top step. The whole thing folds out of the way to hang on the wall during the day.

Reset House dining table

Reset House dining table

The dining table and two chairs, one on either side (will be clearer in the next article) fold up against the wall and down as needed. In this design these simply hang on the wall, but added with more sophisticated detailing they could fold into it, inset and flush for minimal obstruction. To continue this overlapping strategy, the table is shared by the bench seat so four people can sit together.

A great deal of development in the Reset House design ensures the proper staging and sequencing of spaces across the 24 day cycle. One example is how the kitchen sink and appliances are laid out to mostly avoid the extended stair. Only the range is blocked and it is the least likely appliance to be needed at night while the loft is in use. The sink and refrigerator (not visible around the corner to the right) are fully accessible day and night. And the Murphy bed does not obstruct access to the stair, kitchen, or toilet. (See the floor plan in the previous article to see this more clearly.)

Continue to follow the articles here and reference the tag category Reset House to see the collection. The next article will look at storage, the “office,” and the bathroom.


  1. The excellent PBS e2 series highlights Werner Sobek’s R129 house in a way that I haven’t found anywhere online. His concept is a small singular bubble with moving furniture rising out of the floor to adapt the space to every function of the house on demand.
  2. In some future article I’d like to expand this history of overlapping spaces. The Baths of Caracalla and the spectacular Basilica of Constantine in Trier (AD 310) were precursors to the cathedrals, palazzos, and churches today in profound ways.
  3. According to the NAHB Top 10 Features For Upscale Homes, published July 1, 2013, although numerous other surveys confirm.

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