Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Inspiring Houses: The Homes of Stephen Atkinson

We're riding the small house wave.

Stephen Atkinson, a Baton Rouge native, designs houses that speak to me.

Studio Atkinson, his small firm, is based in Palo Alto, California and takes projects across the globe. They've gotten a boatload of press. The portfolio is pretty impressive considering the age of the firm.

The goal of the firm is the create authentic architecture, and I believe it shows. Nothing superfluous. Just good architecture.

Much of the work has the purity and simplicity of Hugh Newell Jacobsen.

Atkinson designed one of my favorite houses of all time:

This dogtrot design was built for the architect's parents in Louisiana. The house is so simple that it is magnificent.

Based on a spiritual principle, the house forms a cruciform shape and and has an almost monastic simplicity:

The design reflects the vernacular architecture, functions very well as a weekend retreat, and has a meaningful premise. Nice.

The interior spaces are beautifully proportioned:

And it even looks good stuffed with stuff:

The house functions well. As seen in a photo above, the side "windows" are translucent corrugated panels. The end windows can be covered completely with swinging doors to provide security during absences:

And it has a very cool outdoor fireplace.

I've considered asking him if he'd sell me the plans to reproduce the house on my family's East Texas farm. I like it (and his work in general) that much.

Check it out.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Good Books: The Cabin

The last post mentioned my love of small smart homes and books that feature them.

The Cabin, a beautiful coffee table book by Dale Mulfinger and Susan E. Davis, is one of them. I love this book.

In my opinion, the title is a bit misleading. The book really focuses on small (sometimes extremely small) homes. Many of the designs could easily work in a more urban environment.

And while the Amazon site features examples of the more rustic homes in the book...

almost half of the homes are contemporary in spirit if not outright modern.

But the most compelling feature of the book is the very inspiring uses of space. It illustrates just how well one can live in a small space; that vast space is a luxury, not a necessity.

Clever, clever.

Inspiring Houses: The IT House

I love smart, small houses. Many of my favorite design books focus on small homes that live big.

The IT House is a prefab home designed by Taalman Koch Architecture out of Glendale, California with almost all glass perimeter walls.

I like it a lot as a concept.

The choice of materials and features is really cool, including Bosch aluminum framing, radiant heat flooring and a Bulthaup kitchen island:

At about 1000 square feet, the
floorplan is tight but efficient and includes a private wing and a public wing. (Or should I say wingette?)

I also like that this tight floorplan manages to create a couple of small courtyard type spaces, which would lend an abstract sense of enclosure to such a transparent environment.

But one of the coolest components of the house is that the owner can select any number of transparent or opaque graphic designs that adhere to inside of the perimeter glass walls. The panels, designed by nondesigns and called outfits on the site, can lend a greater sense of privacy...

a strong graphic punch...

or a subtle organic touch.

Or you could throw caution to the wind and go completely transparent, which is probably what I would end up choosing if the neighbors were far enough away...or really attractive and also lived in a glass house.

The designers have left no surface or feature unconsidered, including options like the groovy fireorb:

and suggested furnishings, including this sleek shelving unit:

The IT House is offered as a total environment.

I could see it in a rural setting or placed between strategic walls or fences to provide a little privacy.

The house is suitable for temperate climates only. But if you live in the right area, a starting price of about $175,000 provides a thoughtfully designed home with beautiful finishes and fixtures.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Key Learnings: Literal Architects

Long time no post.

I've been busy. We're showing our house in Dallas and should have a contract by the end of the weekend. And, I'm talking to Austin architects and doing some top-level research on lots, builders, and the like. I've already learned a lot.

The primary thing I've learned this week is that, when writing up your program (aka: your basic wants and needs in a build), be mindful of how it will be interpreted.

Here's an excerpt from our written program:

A modern home, reflecting the vernacular, with between 1700 and 2200 heated square feet. We want a sense of classicism and symmetry and a lot of natural light.

A courtyard configuration (or the feel of one) would be ideal. We like a sense of privacy. Water features would be welcome.

The street façade of the home can be fairly simple, conveying a bit of a demure side. The design drama could be contained behind the front entrance, if it were to make sense.

We like a sense of security and solidity. Stone, concrete and/or brick are appreciated. We respond to traditional, vernacular materials used in modern ways. We insist on sloped roofs with deep overhangs, and outdoor entertaining spaces.

While I think that this overview in our program is vague enough to be interpreted in many different directions, some folks are quite literal.

One architect (who shall remain nameless) said to me, "Your project budget won't allow for a stone exterior. I think your program is far too lofty for your budget". And that, pretty much, was that.

And while we do have budget constraints, what we were hoping for is an architect who can take our wish list and provide thoughtful, economical solutions to our program outline. Someone who is willing to say, right off the bat, "You can't do that, but you could do this".

We see this as a process, and our program is a starting point, not a manifesto.

So, when you start putting thoughts on paper, be mindful of how they might be interpreted. Or, make sure that, if you are a literal person, you end up with a literal architect. And vice versa.

And maybe that's really the key learning....

It really is important that personality and communication styles between architect and client are simpatico. Right from the very start.

Later I'll post more on how we've narrowed our list.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Narrowing the List: The Phone.

I have phone calls this week with our four potential firms:

Cottam Hargrave:

Mell Lawrence:

MJ Neal:

Rick Black:

While I certainly don't intend to use these phone conversations to narrow our list on their own, I hope they'll be insightful.

It'll be something to look forward to.

I'll report back.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Narrowing the List: Questions for Architects

As we move into the phase of meeting and interviewing architects, I've been doing some research on all the questions we should ask as well as things we should look for in a firm.
I've found some helpful sites.

This set of 20 questions pops up all over the internet and seems to have originally been generated by the American Institute of Architects:

20 Questions to Ask Your Architect

1. What does the Architect see as important issues or considerations in your project? What are the challenges of the project?

2. How will the Architect approach your project?

3. How will the Architect gather information about your needs, goals, etc.?

4. How will the Architect establish priorities and make decisions?

5. Who from the architectural firm will you be dealing with directly? Is that the same person who will be designing the project? Who will be designing your project?

6. How interested is the Architect in this project?

7. How busy is the Architect?

8. What sets this Architect apart from the rest?

9. How does the Architect establish fees?

10. What would the Architect expect the fee to be for this project?

11. What are the steps in the design process?

12. How does the Architect organize the process?

13. What does the Architect expect you to provide?

14. What is the Architect’s design philosophy?

15. What is the Architect’s experience/track record with cost estimating?

16. What will the Architect show you along the way to explain the project? Will you see models, drawings, or computer animations?

17. If the scope of the project changes later in the project, will there be additional fees? How will these fees be justified?

18. What services does the Architect provide during construction?

19. How disruptive will construction be? How long does the Architect expect it to take to complete your project?

20. Does the Architect have a list of past clients that you can contact?

The Boston Society of Architects has a great page that goes a little deeper, including this list:

Recommendations from People Who've Done It

1. Remember that you get what you pay for — be sure to hire a qualified architect, not the least expensive one.

2. Do not expect to save money by hiring non-professionals.

3. Execute a contract or letter of agreement detailing fees, schedules, budgets, and tasks, and monitor the process outlined in the agreement every step of the way. (A contract is essential.)

4. Take time to plan for your project — and allow your architect and contractor the time needed to properly design and build.

5. Do not allow your architect or builder to rush you to decisions (about detailing, materials, etc.).

6. Make all design decisions before construction begins — it gets very expensive to change your mind later. (It is far easier to erase a line than to remove a wall.)

7. Resist revisiting decisions once you make them. Every decision affects work done after it; changes can be costly.

8. Carefully conduct necessary surveys, title searches, and similar research.

9. It is not reasonable to expect that a building project will heal a marriage, friendship, or company; it won’t.

10. It is unwise to try to fit your needs into a beloved design. Instead, allow a design to grow from a thorough understanding of your needs.

11. Ask many questions until you get the answers you need in language you can understand.

12. Monitor construction and ask questions about anything you don’t understand.

13. Do not substitute “bargain” materials for good materials.

14. Allow budget contingencies for both design and construction.

15. Observe construction so you will be more likely to catch errors early.

The same site also offers this great workbook, downloable in pdf format, that takes the homeowner through several steps to guide the selection of an architect, the decision to build a custom home, and establish expectations. A great resource.

If YOU have any other points to consider, please leave a comment rather than email me directly, so that other readers have access to the information.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Narrowing the List: Metrohouse Site Visit

We've moved to the next step in our home odyssey: architect interviews and site visits.

Last week, I met with Dean, the developer of
Metrohouse, a modern concept popping up all around central Austin.

We arranged to meet at one of the building sites so I could see it during finish-out, then moved on to a site a few streets south in an earlier phase of construction. Each lot holds two houses, so I was able to see four different homes.

Three of the homes are already sold, and both sites are north of downtown Austin.


This was the first stop my mini-tour:

Located on a transitional residential street, these two Metrohouses were designed by
StudioMomentum architects. The home in the foreground is already sold, and the home in the background (Home B) is still available. It is designed for those who want a very flexible living space, plenty of outdoor space, and few walls. It is essentially a loft that happens to sit on the ground:

The house consists of one large living space with lots of windows. As seen in the photo above, there is a circular staircase that leads up to a long, narrow mezzanine that could serve as the sleeping quarters and/or studio/study. There are no dedicated bedrooms.

While it does not suit our needs, the house does have a large private yard and would be ideal for a single artist-type who enjoys gardening and being outdoors:

This was the second stop on the tour:

These homes have unusual floorplans with some flex space, which makes them suitable for many different lifestyles.

The home on the left, Home A, has the kitchen, dining and living area, along with pantry and powder room in a compact amount of square footage, with three bedrooms on the second level. Home B houses a large flexible space on the first floor, with kitchen, living areas and one bedroom on the upper floor:

While the lower floor flex space of House B (see above) could easily be split into a guest bedroom and study/studio, it does look great as an open space facing the back yard.

Both homes have really cool metal staircases and creative and careful placement of windows to insure lots of light and privacy from neighbors. While the outdoor spaces are not huge, they are ample for someone who doesn't require a large yard to maintain.


Every single metrohouse is different. The floorplans and designs are all unique, which does make it fun. The quality of the actual construction seems solid. I saw lots of reinforced joints, careful window installations, and that type of thing. I didn't see a lot of corners being cut on the actual structure.

The finish-out and choice of appliances and fixtures was a bit disappointing, however. While these items are certainly attractive and fit within the aesthetic of the structures, they are certainly low cost.

For us, the kitchens, specifically, are lacking. While the cabinets are attractive and sleek, and the appliances are simple and modern, we do want a high quality, cook-friendly kitchen with plenty of storage. If you are not a cook and you simply need a place to dish out your takeout, the kitchens would work for you.

Dean says that these choices make his homes as financially accessible as possible. He allows buyers to choose higher-quality (and pricier) appliances, hardware and finishes if they purchase the home before this phase of construction begins.

We'd definitely be looking at some upgrades in the kitchen.

A Metrohouse is going to cost you from $345,000 to $365,000. If you tack on about $25,000 in upgrades, you are starting to push the $400K envelope. And for about $400,000, one could easily find a great lot in East Austin, hire an architect, and build something incredible from scratch. But building isn't for everyone.


The Metrohouse concept is for buyers who want a modern home for under $375,000, want to live on the west side of I-35, and who are not willing to get on the home-building rollercoaster ride. They come turn-key, down to the landscaping and irrigation.

Because all the homes are different, buyers simply have to find the perfect Metrohouse to suit their lifestyle.

Dean does have a few interesting projects coming up. He is building a cluster of Metrohouses on six lots south of downtown that will have their own private street, curbside parking, and a common exterior look and feel. I imagine that these houses will hold their value extremely well due to their commonalities and strong sense of neighborhood.

The bottom line is that the Metrohouse concept is changing the face of speculative housing in Austin. They are a perfect choice for the right buyer and are being snapped up as quickly as they can be built. It is very exciting to see.

For us, we'll continue to see what develops with the concept. If the perfect package comes along and we feel comfortable sinking the money into upgrades, we might just bite.

It remains an option.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Sites to Like: Threadless

When boredom sets in, check out Threadless for an always entertaining selection of t-shirt designs, like this French Army Knife shirt:

Threadless is an ongoing online t-shirt design competition. Two or three designs are chosen from the 300-plus submissions per week. The winners get a cash prize and a bullet point on the ole resume.

Threadless is a great place to go for inspiring graphic design, like the
Neapolitan Bonaparte shirt:

And the
Piece of Meat shirt:

But today's favorite (ie: my favorite) is the
Grass: Nutritional Info shirt:

Threadless is pretty cool.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Cool Stuff: War Bowl

How cool is this?

From Mosley Meets Wilcox, this decorative vessel is made out of melted toy soldiers.

Available from
Moss, the Uber of uber fancy design shops in NYC, it makes a statement, is an amazingly inventive piece of design, and just plain looks cool.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Short List: Shortened

We've narrowed down the list.

After some more thought, research, home drive-by's, and feedback, we've narrowed it to the following:

Cottam Hargrave
Their work shows so much restraint. Clearly tied to classic modernism, but not tied down.

Mell Lawrence
Because of the elegance and use of materials, along with a little whimsy.

MJ Neal
Because he comes so highly recommended and I'm liking the lines.

Rick Black
I like the apparent connection to Austin, along with the inventiveness.

And we're also still considering the
Metrohouse concept.

So that's it. Whew.

Shopping: Good Throw Pillows.

A few throw pillows in a living space are like gloves, hats and scarves.

Not that many people use them to advantage anymore, but when well-chosen and of high quality, can make the difference between a dowdy ensemble and a chic, inspiring one.

I adore
girls that wear hats. And I love throw pillows.

For example, I've never been one to spend a great deal of money on upholstered furniture, such as sofas. They start looking dingy too quickly, especially when your pets run the household. And the cost of reupholstering has become astronomical. So, I'm a fan of buying modestly-priced upholstery pieces and sinking the real money on the other stuff: dining tables and chairs, accessory tables and lighting. Good art. The stuff that lasts.

Also, I don't spend my money on upholstery that is too trendy. Nice neutral, restfull colors do it for me.


Because, like hats, gloves and scarves, you can change the mood of a room by moving around some tchatzkahs and casually throwing some new pillows on the sofa. (Hence the name.)

Hable Construction, of course, makes some really beautiful pillows. This textile design company, started by a native Texan, focuses on using the highest quality fibers and works directly with a women's cooperative in Hungary to develop many of their pieces. I particularly like this beautiful woven jaquard pillow:

And this really great looking wool felt applique design:

Jonathan Adler always has something fun in the way of pillows. And the super cool thing is that you can use his swatches and customize your own.

This hand-silkscreened branch pillow from DesignPublic is really beautiful. In fact, I think I might need it:

The Magazine offers a decent selection of fun pillows as well. I like this leaf design:

This angled multi striped job from Crate and Barrel tickles my fancy as well:

All this talk of hats, gloves, scarves and nice fluffy pillows has me questioning my masculinity. I think I need to sit around and burp for a while.