Mapping and Design Process

How does one begin learning the design process? Start teaching, and you will relearn it in a whole new way! Coming across students with a variety of approaches, intellectual understanding, creativity and methodologies begins to teach the teacher how to teach. Nearly all architects claim to be good designers, because all of us got to where we are today after having been through those grueling studio exercises and years of professional experience. However, those who stay in academics after school form a completely different design vocabulary than those who practice in firms. Needless to say, it’s a process of relearning when a practitioner delves into academics after staying afar for years. Welcome to my world!

One side effect of teaching is that the educator has to read a lot. Fortunately, by this time through your experiences, you have formed a deeper understanding of what you are reading than the time when you read similar content as a student years ago. Hopefully. Reading now is far more eye-opening, inspiring and enticing. Suddenly spending your Saturdays catching up on reading doesn’t feel like a daunting task, but something you’d look forward to.

Mapping and the art of drawing has always been a curious subject to me. As a student I invested some energy into getting inspiration from the processes of mapping and composite drawings. But once you start practicing in the professional world, you normally tend to lose touch with such theoretic approaches. The priorities change, and design process becomes mundane, if I may. I am revisiting the subject now as a “part-time academic”. I just finished reading about “The Fundamental Principles of Analytical Design” in Beautiful Evidence by Edward Tufte. Not only is it applicable for students in design studios, but for practitioners creating drawings, documenting their work, making presentations, conveying ideas we might say. A great read, for the academic or professional within you. Read it, and let me know what you think.

GREENBAUM HOUSE: COD 2013 Spring Conference

Greenbaum House Image by Steven K. Alspaugh

Homes are expressions of our individualities. The home emerges out of the ground wrapping around the space we need to lead a comfortable life. Comfort has a direct correlation with the climate. Following our individual expression, it is the climate that is the primary determinant of the home design and construction. Exploring the mid-century modern architecture, the AIA Committee on Design (COD) held its annual Spring Conference at Palm Springs, CA on May 9-12, 2013. The conference led us to many homes built between 1930s to current date in this desert climate. I was one of the two lucky winners of the COD Knowledge Scholarship, and was able to avail the opportunity of being a part of the tremendous conference through the generous support of couple donors.

Palm Springs is a unique city located off the major arteries of Los Angeles region, sitting on a detour between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The city was born and put on the map when celebrities traveling between LA and LV would leisure at Palm Springs having a good time away from the tourist traffic. The practice continues today. This pattern has led to many homes away from homes in Palm Springs. We toured many of the luxurious residences and other prominent projects during the COD conference. The architects of the projects we visited included Albert Frey, Palmer & Krisel, John Lautner, Donald Wexler, Stewart Williams, William Cody, Jim Jennings, Marmol & Radziner, O2 Architecture, Ana Escalante, and Frederick Fisher. We had the privilege of hearing from William Krisel, Jim Jennings and Fred Fisher, among others.

Responding to the local climate, each home we visited had a large private swimming pool, which seemed to be a checklist item for all construction in Palm Springs. Each project also made the best use of the surrounding views, so much so that one forgot the house while looking out. Of all the projects we saw, I was immediately taken by the Greenbaum House designed by Ana Escalante, completed in 2006. This is a residence where the boundary between the outdoor swimming pool and the large living room completely melts, a house where the individuality of the owner shines, and a house that begins to speak to the Palm Springs climate.

Entrance to Greenbaum House. Image by Steven K. Alspaugh

The inspiration for the house came from the owner who loves to swim. The initial thought was to design something very environment appropriate, which slowly turned to be exhibitionist as well. The house expresses the individuality of the owner by bringing the outdoor swimming pool at your face as soon as you enter the house. The entrance of the Greenbaum House is sunken, approached by a sloping ramp from the street level culminating at a shaded outdoor vestibule. One enters the living room directly facing the swimming pool beyond the concrete wall with punched openings.

During our visit, once we absorbed the blue glow of the light coming from the pool filtering into the living area, we were surprised by the sudden appearance of the owner waving at us from the pool. We found ourselves drawn immediately to the glass wall separating the pool from the living room. Only after exploring the pool did we take in the rest of the space. The effect is mesmerizing to the first time visitor.

Living Room Wall’s Punched Openings to Swimming Pool. Image by Deepika Padam

Owner Swimming as Seen from Living Room. Image by Deepika Padam

This house is about the pool, built around a pool, engulfing the pool, exhibiting the pool, with the owner almost living in the pool. But the pool was not just meant to be a pool during the design phase. It was imagined that because the pool will stay at 70 to 80 degrees temperature throughout the year and the windows between the pool and the living space are well insulated, it will help control the temperature within the house. But the owner jokes today that it is similar to being in a plane at 42,000 feet and mistakenly thinking that those plane windows also insulate. In reality, the Greenbaum house controls temperature well because it is part subterranean and insulated in the superstructure very well. The pool certainly helps keep it cool, yet is not the primary insulator. However, the pool remains the central attraction for everybody. When the owner holds parties at the house, everybody has a lot of fun with the pool and the picture windows, where everybody has taken a Facebook™ picture.

Second Floor Perched Above the Swimming Pool. Image by Deepika Padam

There is more to this house than a beautiful 25m lap pool sunken in the ground. The house is located 500 feet above the valley floor in a gated community with dramatic views of the desert and the city below. “The developer of the community created the home site by leveling the existing natural mountain features. The project carves back into the site as well as hovers over it, in order to restore its original dramatic topographical features.” – Escalante Architects. Not only does the form of the house address the local terrain in this fashion, but it also takes advantage of the natural insulation offered by the ground due to being subterranean. Ample daylight is allowed into the interiors while controlling the heat gain through shutters, projections and canopies. The indoor spaces flow into the outdoor spaces with large glass expanses that open up into terraces. These terraces are used for entertaining guests during the milder temperatures in the evening.

Floor Plans. Source:

The organization of the house functions is not atypical. The living room seating area steps down following the site terrain and opens up to the valley view beyond. The kitchen and dining area are in the opposite direction with a guest bedroom in the back. The second floor is perched above the swimming pool, crosses over and lands on the detached fitness room alcove on the other side of the pool. The upstairs consists of two separate bedroom suites. Flanked by the two bedroom suites is a small library / seating alcove that opens up to a large terrace fully equipped with barbeque appliances. When you walk out to the back at the mid-level, you are welcomed by the pools. The sunken lap pool provides the illusion of an infinity pool casting a blue glow over the second floor slab above. There is also a separate sauna building adjacent to the fitness room.

Blue Glow from the Pool. Image by Deepika Padam

Pool Image by Marco Garcia from the website of Escalante Architects

At about 4,300 SF, the Greenbaum House is a good size house built in steel frame construction. The owner shared with us that it took about a year and a half of construction time to build the house. The construction had to stop a few times because the engineers wanted to reinforce the living room/pool demising wall with redundancy. So they kept re-engineering it. It is designed to withstand an 8-point earthquake. The glass windows are composed of four layers of glass and four layers of mylar, making them a total of 4.5” thick pane windows. The utility bill, which in the Palm Springs desert could be up to $25,000 a year, is under $100 a month on average for the Greenbaum House with the integrated active and passive solar systems. Standing in the Living Room and pointing to the East wall with punched openings to the pool, the owner is confident that the pool helps insulate along the Eastern edge. He proudly swims every day.

Punched Window Between the Living Room and Outdoor Pool. Image by Steven K. Alspaugh

When the house was built, the design team took as many eco-friendly measures as they could at the time. A small token of it is the tile in the pool, bathrooms, etc. made of recycled bottle glass. Using materials and finishes that speak of the desert, the house sets an example for responsible architecture at Palm Springs. It turns out, the house is currently for sale. As the owner spends much of his time in the Bay Area, he has decided to move. When asked what his next house will be like, he says with a smile that it will be smaller.

Seating Lounge on the Second Floor. Image by Deepika Padam

One of the Suites on the Second Floor. Image by Deepika Padam

A majority of the work we visited during the COD conference was done in the 50s. The Greenbaum House is one of the few that is done by a contemporary architect. These custom homes not only express the owners’ individualities, but also the unique design approach to the climatic conditions of the desert and the styles prevalent during the time of construction. The Greenbaum House, although may seem to be a rather usual house with expected functional organization, orientation to views, and response to climate, gets away from the design approach of its Palm Springs predecessors. This is evident in the site manipulation to make it a 3-level residence in essence, and in the use of contemporary measures to environmental control and envelop design. However, the house fails to accomplish many shaded outdoor spaces that some of the older homes at Palm Springs so generously provide. Ultimately it is a functional modern home that could be located in another climate or locality very easily. However, having lived in a desert home for many years myself, the $100 energy bill on average seems quite a feat!

The Owner Sharing his Stories with the COD Group. Image by Steven K. Alspaugh

The Greenbaum House screams simplicity. It is a simple home that springs from a pool with living spaces suspended above the pool. The interior finishes and furnishings are modern and simple as well along the language of the contemporary desert architecture. It is a place built to entertain with blurred indoor and outdoor boundaries. The house delivers the owner’s desire of focusing on the lap pool. This was the one house we visited during the entire conference where I finally removed my shoes and wet my feet.

Pool as seen from Second Floor Entertainment Patio. Image by Steven K. Alspaugh

Deepika and Dorothy Taking a Break from the Palm Springs Heat. Images by Steven K. Alspaugh

Although Greenbaum House left a permanent imprint on my mind, the whole conference was an eye-opening experience for me. It broadened my perspective for the committee, and I was able to connect with professionals from various spectrums, levels, and backgrounds. COD is a great group to get involved with for emerging professionals and seasoned architects alike. The conference itself is an out-of-the-box experience with the majority of the time spent in visiting architecture instead of talking about it in a freezing conference hall. The work is carefully chosen along the theme for the year. I took the time to enjoy the conference and the great company during the three days, but also stayed in touch with the outer world through my tweets and images. I returned overjoyed, energized and inspired.

At the Crossroads

I was appalled to read about one of the projects nominated for 2012 RIBA Silver Medal. The project that won the 2012 Rawat Award for Best Graduate Design Project. The project that at its core is the opposite of what the human actions should be. It is a thesis project by Jack Murno, a 2012 graduate of University of Westminster in London. Built with bricks made of blood and sand, the proposal is a brick-making community in Siwa, Egypt. The positive spin to the thesis is that the blood being used for the bricks is a byproduct from slaughtered cows, hence the reuse of a waste resource. What horror for architects to stoop to this level! I see a direct correlation between the waste blood and the high levels of methane generated at slaughter houses. (I won’t get into the increased potential for diseases from eating meat.) It begs the question, what is our responsibility as architects? Architects are regarded among the leaders for the sustainability of the planet. Does our work start and stop at buildings? Why are we talking about what to do with waste blood or methane? Why are we not talking about why so many cows are being artificially mass-reproduced and then mass-slaughtered? Should architects be setting an example from our lifestyles that go beyond designing buildings?

Proposal for a brick-making community in Siwa, Egypt

A professor once told me that while talking about project sites I shouldn’t use the phrase “natural landscape”. He said that everything we see around us has been touched by humans. The correct phrase is existing landscape, not natural landscape. On similar grounds, should we use the phrase “natural disasters”? I reckon we should call them man-made disasters instead. Hurricane Sandy… Sick of the news coverage much? Are you still debating whether climate change is real? Do you think your actions are so minor that they are a drop in the ocean? If you are not feeling responsible for Sandy, you are still living in a dream world. You are the cause for natural disasters. Together we are all the cause for them.

Photographs of the deserted NYC subway system before Hurricane Sandy hit may seem rather serene. The aftermath coverage is jaw dropping. There are multiple lessons to be learnt from Sandy that have been covered widely. RMI published a treatise on smart grid vis-à-vis distributed power.  It may seem trivial, but Fast Company featured a cell phone charger for disasters. Story about a few student volunteers got featured that reached out to old or disabled people stuck in buildings without power, food and medicine immediately after the hurricane struck and before the Red Cross could do anything. Good news is that NYC saw a big upswing on the number of bicyclists on the roads. We’ve got to do something about that traffic! Camaraderie was witnessed top to bottom where people and corporations opened doors to help each other. People are working hard to rebuild the systems, bring order to the chaos. However, they say that prevention is better than cure. Could we have prevented Hurricane Sandy? Maybe not. But maybe it would not have been so severe had we not been living in an age of record number and catastrophic levels of disasters. Had the climate change not soared to these heights. Had we built smarter from the very beginning.

 Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

Some people shun all discussion about climate change either because they think it is God’s will, or because they think that they are being forced to feel guilty over something they didn’t do. They say it is a tactic employed by politicians simply to control the masses. When a pigeon sees an approaching predator cat it closes its eyes thinking that now that it can’t see the cat, the cat won’t see it either. People are pigeons and the cat is the climate change. And in our case, the pigeons created the cat.

Disasters are coming; we should expect more of them at increasing levels in the future. Root cause, Climate Change. The issue is neither religious nor political. It is Common Sense. What will you do to prevent the next disaster? You are at the crossroads, which path would you choose? Acceptance of the consequences, worship when all fails, war against climate change, or elopement to the high-ticket underground caves? Choose carefully, because this is more serious than the Presidential Election. Failure is guaranteed, the disaster will strike regardless of your choice. But it may not be as devastating if you act now.

Residential Architecture

A kid’s drawing of his house

Regardless of the culture, country, vernacular, or time, a kid’s drawing of a house speaks a universal architectural language. The results of kids playing with Legos are also astoundingly similar due to the limitations of the building blocks. Some of these kids grow up to become architects and find their individuality. Some of them begin working on residential projects, whether custom homes, tract homes, or multi-family residential buildings. Yet how many architects live in a house designed by them? Only a few hold on to the dream of building their own home, and of them very few get the opportunity to do it. In the end the inevitable question of financing surfaces, which we so commonly lack even after lifetime of working in this profession. Unfortunately the lack of the dream is a bigger reason than the lack of finances for this sad reality.

The mention of residential architecture typically brings to mind the image of a custom single family home. This typology is extensively celebrated in our profession through design awards, publications, and focus groups. Makes sense, because a majority of architects work in this typology. It appears that the multi-family residential projects often get overlooked on the recognition platform. Possibly they are not being submitted, or lose the competition against higher budget commercial projects. The design discussion definitely needs to extend more to these projects. An outlook towards neighborhoods and communities in our thought process towards future development of the profession would be far more impactful than isolated cases of single family homes.

The AIA’s Architecture Billings Index shows the multi-family residential sector has the highest billing rate. The large cities are especially witnessing an upheaval of multi-family condominium or apartment buildings. California happens to be planning an entire new town next to the Salton Sea with construction slated to begin in the next three years. The developers claim that it will be one of the greenest developments with many job creation opportunities. Although the reviews are many-fold as to the absurdity of this project, it is neighborhood development nonetheless. A good or bad omen for architects? I’d let the environmental groups fight over that.

Another shameful trend is the absence of an architect in the design teams for residential projects. Due to lax laws in some States, many non-licensed professionals get away with doing major residential work and go unnoticed. Where the laws are lot more strictly abided, the law itself allows for small residential work to be done by non-licensed professionals. Some might say that this is all that is keeping some people afloat in the dire economic situation in which we find ourselves. But this trend is obviously affecting some licensed architects that have to compete with cheaper non-licensed inexperienced pseudo-architects. On top of it all, there are now a few software programs available to lay persons that let them design what they want and just hire a contractor to build it. People can now purchase home designs from a roadside stall. The need for an architect is vanishing. Is this technological advancement or ample availability of free design options for the good of our profession? What does the future hold?

As we look into how to adjust for the globalization, economic, technological, and legal trends questioning the role of an architect, we also need to dig deeper into that child within us that might have dreamt of designing his/her own home. Whether we are financially able to build our own home is a secondary issue. For the faintest of hearts and for all those suffering from the blues of economic challenges, I would suggest reading The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. An inspiring read about the challenges of master builders from the 12th century, it is an eye-opener for anyone who would think these are the tough times. Keep those childhood dreams alive for we might get to live in our dream homes someday.