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Character and Perfection

I Hear The Bell Ring

I remember thinking long ago, “I’m at the point now where I don’t need an institution to guide me through learning.  If there is anything I really want to learn, I now know how to do that on my own."


I understood that to learn I must actively seek.  More opaque to me then, was how knowledge or insight may seek us, and present itself for the taking.

Those two routes to knowledge are often present as I attempt to learn new (for me) construction skills.  They were present recently as I began to learn a new plaster method, veneer gypsum plaster for the "Lab.”

We have previously finished a few walls with clay plaster.  Its attributes are ease of application, integral color, handsome appearance, humidity moderation, mold resistance, and relatively easy repair.  It’s disadvantages are high cost, limited color options, and reduced abrasion resistance or toughness.  To be fair there are some clay plaster techniques which give a tougher finish, but I don’t think it comes close to the toughness of gypsum plaster and I think of it as a material best suited to people who live gently and calmly --- not the best choice for families with young children.

It was time to try a different approach:  gypsum veneer plaster and, optionally, paint.  In order to find out how to do it, I dove into the manufacturer’s product literature and trolled the internet chat rooms and, of course, YouTube.  Veneer plaster can be installed over a variety of substrates but the most common one is gypsum base, commonly called blue board.  It is similar to gypsum wallboard except that the paper face (blue-gray in color) is formulated for plaster adhesion.  Our substrate was less common, paperless (fiberglass matt faced) gypsum board.  It is water resistant and eliminating the paper removes a key food source for mold, all be it at a higher material cost.  It has a bit of tooth, and it worked fine with clay plaster.

There are also many different plaster products with differences in durability, workability, ease of installation and finish texture.  And, there are two basic veneer systems:  one coat and two coat.  It’s not rocket science but there are many variables in material and methods, and that gives rise to many ways to do it right, not so right, or wrong.

The informal motto at my architectural school was, “learn by doing.”  I learned a lot by doing it wrong also.  Lacking perfect knowledge and preparation, at some point one just has to dive in which is how I found myself at the local supply house that sells plaster products.

With my list of treasures to acquire (a bag of base coat and a bag of finish plaster and some miscellaneous tools) I noticed out of the corner of my eye another customer, roughly my age which meant he may have been doing whatever he does for 30 years or more.  Before long he was sharing things he knew, such as the 'old guys' mix base coat and finish coat 50-50 for the finish; glue is highly recommended (to help the base coat stick) and not the blue can the guy behind the counter recommended, the pink one; glue after taping and some guys even glue again after base coat; and on and on. 

The sheer kindness of the man would have made my day.  But he wasn’t just friendly or kind.  He was knowledgeable, he was proud of that, and he was open to sharing what he knew when he thought he saw someone with open ears, an open and inquisitive mind, and an interest in his area of expertise.  I will be sure to do things as he said.  And for good measure I will do things in a contrary manner—just to see where the truth lays.

This is the real adult school.  I’d set an alarm for it any day of the week. 

Settled is Unsettled

“Science is the organized skepticism in the reliability of expert opinion.”

"If we will only allow that, as we progress, we remain unsure, we will leave opportunities for alternatives. We will not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth of the day, but remain always uncertain... In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.”

Richard P. Feynman

I am one of those who lived through the late ‘60s and early 70’s, though I don’t remember all of it.  I do remember a bumper sticker of the era:  “Question Authority.” Many people of my age, who came of age in those times, naturally tended to question things, because we were not at all certain we were being presented with the truth by those reputed to have it.

In architecture school "question authority" was replaced with “question assumptions.”  Since the goal of design is to understand problems and devise the best possible solution, that goal will be frustrated if we include false knowledge as settled understandings.

In this regard there are similarities between the design process and science.  An unwillingness to cast a skeptical eye toward what is considered settled leaves, as Feynman suggests, the door to the unknown shut.  Yet new knowledge always emerges from the unknown.  

A dissimilarity between the two might be that design has a “use by date.”  Designers are forced by practical considerations to say, “this is as close to the truth as we can go given the time and resources available to us.”  Science on the other hand, if it is real science, never says “nothing more to see here, move along."

An open mind is a terrible thing to shut.

Drip, Drip….

The new year usually brings new surprises in legislative accomplishments.  There are always new additions and some people are very proud of them.

One that caught me by surprise is SB407 (2009-2010) which takes effect Jan. 1, 2014.

Here’s what it says:

For any single family residence constructed prior to 1994, any alteration or repair that requires a building permit, replace a window or put in a new heater*, for example, will require the replacement all the non-water conserving plumbing fixtures in their house with water conserving types.  That is all faucets, shower heads and toilets.

Here's the standard:

4)Defines "noncompliant plumbing fixtures" as meaning any of the following:

            a)   Any toilet manufactured to use more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush;

            b)   Any urinal manufactured to use more than one gallon of water per flush; 

            c)   Any showerhead manufactured to have a flow capacity of more then 2.5 gallons of     water per minute; and,

            d)   Any interior faucet that emits more than 2.2 gallons of water per minute.

In theory any plumbing fixture bought and installed in California after 1994 will be considered a water conserving type.  But the flow rates shown above do not meet current code in California, so if you do replace your fixtures here’s what you will be limited to:

Toilet:  1.28 gal./flush.  (Dual flush toilets are computed as the average of one full flush and two reduced flushes—you had to know).

Showerhead:  2.0 gal./min. @ 80psi.  (Handhelds are considered a showerhead).

Lavatory Faucet:  1.5 gal./min. @ 60psi.

Kitchen Faucet:  1.8 gal./min @ 60psi, 2.2 gal./min. in temporary increase (this requirement is not clear)

But that’s not all.

The sale of a house constructed prior to 1994 also will require replacement of non-conserving fixtures.

But that’s not all.

By 2017 all single family residences constructed prior to 1994 must have their fixtures upgraded, regardless of whether any work requiring a permit has been done.  This may be difficult to enforce except via the building permit process or property transfer processes.

There are also requirements for commercial properties and multi-family properties.

*An interesting fact of heater replacement is that, according to the Contractor’s State License Board (CSLB), for every mechanical permit pulled for the replacement of a heater (a permit is required by code) there are 10 heaters sold in California. So 9 out of 10 heaters in California are installed without permits.  CSLB intends to change this with a focus on enforcement and sanctions of HVAC contractors doing residential work.

Why do you suppose 9 out of 10 people choose not to get a permit when replacing their heater?

Let’s close this tap with a little mix of music and architecture, because they go as hand in glove.


Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all.

Old Panoramas

Here are a few of our panoramas from our visit to Chichen Itza.  At the link there is also a map showing the approximate location of each photo.  Our location is the green pin.  Other visitors are located by the red pins.  You can see their panoramas by clicking on the different red pins. 

I thought that since we had no wifi or cellular, the locations of the photos would be lost.  It turns out that while we could not see the locations on a map at the time, (map is net provided) the iPad remembered the GPS coordinates so that when we had net access again it showed them on a map.  Please understand that hand held electronic calculators which could add and subtract appeared in my sophomore year in college.  In my youth, as far as I was concerned, freeze dried coffee was a technological marvel.

Here you go:

This is a view of a large courtyard east of the main pyramid  The purpose of this is open to conjecture.  I think the trees are modern weeds.  The scale of this should give a hint that Chichen Itza had wealth.


Here is a long colonnade on the periphery of the central space with the pyramid.  The fitting of the column stones is interesting in that while they controlled the outside surface, they accepted the irregularity of the mating surfaces and filled the irregularities with a rubble and cement mix that is particular to each fitting on each column.  I suspect that they may have once had some kind of plaster finish that hid what we see today.


Below is a view from one end of the ball court, with the main pyramid in the distance.


Below is the famous ball court.  If you look carefully you will see about half way along the walls a stone ring high on the wall on each side.  I’m told the first Harry Potter director was from Mexico. The story that is told is that two teams played with a 2” diameter rubber ball and the object of the game was to send the ball through the ring.  Our guide said that the captain of the winning team was sacrificed.  There are thousands of people who visit this site every day.  I’m not sure our guide’s account is correct, though it would not surprise me if some form of sacrifice were part of the entertainment.  Whether our guide’s claims were correct and certain, should not detract from the stunning character and sporting purpose of this space.


Here finally is the main pyramid.  It is actually two pyramids.  There is a smaller one inside this one which was built over the smaller one.  The panorama gives a good look at what a large and important space this was.  You could probably fit the Acropolis in here and have space left over.


Spelling for Architects

It is embarrassing to have a message or idea and not be able to spell the words used to convey them.  It probably hasn't happened to anyone you know or love, but I confess to a dependent relationship with spell checkers.  It didn't used to be that way.


I had a dictionary and used it.  And besides, nobody expected architects to be able to spell.  It just the way the world used to work.  Doctors couldn't write legibly and architect couldn't spell.  Now, thanks to liability concerns, nobody lets doctors write anything and architects use spell checkers.  Except that some architects use new web authoring software thinking it has a usable spell checker and find out the spell checker must have been written by an older architect.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Apologies to all.  

I think we can spell again.


Design is a process to understand a problem and devise a solution.  Both the understanding and the solution, however, can be elusive.

My high school math teacher, David Caulkins used to ask this question:

"[pointing to his nose] If I move from where I'm standing to that light switch, and each time I move I go half the distance, how long will it take me to reach the light switch?"

Everyone knew the answer to that, but Mr. Caulkins always had a message or two.  One probably was that things could not only be infinitely large, but infinitely small too, the second concept every bit as strange as the first.  Worse still was the idea that something infinitely large (the time it takes to reach the switch) is fundamental to something infinitely small (the distance to the goal).

Another message, for me at least, was that each step forward brought a more accurate approximation of the desired result, though the completely perfect result was not attainable. At some point Mr. Caulkins nose would seem to be right at the switch, apparently not moving at all, though steadily moving.  A rational person, or at least a practical person, might say at that point:  "ok, I'm there, let's call it a day."

In understanding a design problem or devising a solution we would ideally like to have the perfect understanding and the perfect solution.  But how would one know it was perfect?  I think to have a chance of knowing, one would have to take one more step into the unknown, to look beyond what we think we know, to question what we know.  If there is nothing left to explore that could disturb our understanding or solution, we may indeed have reached the perfect understanding or solution.

We can also reach a point in our inquiry where the next possible step seems like a very small improvement, though there may still be another small improvement to be found after that one.  How far do we go before we call it a day?  How do we get as close to perfection as possible without letting perfection become the enemy of the good?

I think we first have to have an idea of how much time we have to work the problem, it's not infinite.  At some point we have to say:  "this is all the time we have."  Second, we need to have some idea of what resources, financial especially, we have to devote to the effort.

These are the real world limits within which good design will emerge, if that is possible.  Design skill can affect the efficiency of time and money spent, and the chances for success.  Most of us who design embrace this kind of challenge---of doing the best we can with what we have to work with.  And frankly, the resources we can deploy on small projects is normally modest.

It must be normal then to feel some awe and appreciation when we see others push their designs out beyond what our imagination and resources will permit.  

Business Week had an interesting interview recently with Jonathan Ive and Craig Federighi.  Federighi highlighted the deep effort at perfection in their work:

Federighi: I think it’s a unique statement about Apple’s values in product development that it is taken as a given among everyone on the team that we will go to the most absurd lengths seemingly to get something just right, to solve, to do the level of architecture work that normally would constitute the most critical element of a product, but we’ll focus that amount of energy and more to say, “That blur has to be just right. That detail has to be just right.” 

It's a big world.

And a PS.

Kevin Cameron, resident technical genius at Cycle World for the last 20 years offers this:

"Well shucks folks, beauty is where you find it.  I propose that Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa pull forth the superb beauty of controlled motion from the chaos of all other possible motions.  They are dancers on machines, living proof that perfection, even if unattainable, does not have to be too far away."

Kitchens Differ

The kitchens I've designed are custom rooms.  They are mostly alterations in an existing residence, so what already exists is an influence.  While sometimes we might move a kitchen to a different area, or expand it into a new area, sometimes we have to work with things we are not going to change much, such as plumbing, or ceiling heights, or locations of doors to other rooms.

The biggest influence, however, is who will be using the kitchen, what they need functionally, and what character or feel is sought.  In terms of function we consider questions such as:  

  • Will it be used frequently or infrequently?
  • One cook or multiple cooks?
  • A work space or social space?
  • Quick and easy meals or more challenging preparations?
  • Small children living in the house?

Answers to questions like these will provide a direction for the general organization of the room.  For example, ease of circulation is vital in a kitchen frequently used by multiple cooks, and social spaces.  More compact arrangements, including 'U' shaped kitchens may be perfectly functional for single cook and infrequently used kitchens.  For more active kitchens we look for more than one entrance and the right amount of space between cabinetry.

A particular general organization is only the starting point, the skeleton of the finished room. It can be formally expressed in a limitless number of different ways.  Here style is important.  But in my view, the style that is important is not style in the sense of fashion, it is the style of the person using the kitchen, which may in some cases follow the latest fashion and in others not.  In any event it is the personal style that we are trying to understand, express and serve.

That personal style will be evident in the choice of materials, colors, equipment, and a host of small details, such as the particular hardware used to open and close things, or even a lack of hardware to open and close things.

One person's style might also align closely with a particular architectural style, such as Arts and Crafts, or it might be an eclectic mix of styles or a unique idiosyncratic style.  It might be reticent and reserved for one person and expressive and exuberant for another.

In this light I'd like to share a kitchen detail from "The Lab."  This detail is an example of style as defined here.  It's personal.

It begins with a desire for color to liven up the room colors (which are soft grays, yellow tans, red and green) and in particular a desire to achieve that by incorporating the colorful ceramic tiles of Mexico in the back splash of the main countertop.  These tiles are hand made which means that they are not perfectly flat, and are not gauged, which means instead of being say exactly 4" square, they are 4" plus or minus 3/16".  For us it was not just a nice contrast with the precise elements in the room (the appliances and cabinets).  It combines color, associated with joy, and imperfection associated with the "man made" nature of the material.  It fits our style to seek perfection but accept some imperfection as we must on occasion look kindly on ourselves.

 To start we needed a place with a good assortment of tiles.  Talavera Cermics in Berkeley was our library for tiles.  It's worth noting the wide variety of plain color and hand painted tiles there are to work with.  There are no limits to the graphic design possibilities.  Had we wanted a calm, regular, or traditional arrangement we would have found just the right tiles for that.  Our choice was to see what fun we could have with a broad and colorful assortment in a tile collage.

But how many to get of each tile?  We did not want to buy tiles we didn't need.  So we selected the tiles we liked, and photographed them.  Like this:

DSC 1349.2

Then using the drawing software we used for our drawings, we imported the photos of the different tiles.  We start with one image of each tile, but we can duplicate them as we develop the collage.  When the layout is as we'd like to see it, we then know how many of each tile to buy, and where they go.  Here is small view of the layout:

Our intent was not a completely random arrangement.  In addition to considering how each tile sat with respect to its neighbors (a matter of personal style), we also had a few things we wanted to do to give some structure to the arrangement.  For starters we wanted to emphasize the most important feature of this stretch of counter which was the sink.  There the splash rises higher, also a functional idea.  Also at the sink we grouped several tiles of the same color to give the eye a rest at the sink and faucet area.

The next important key elements were the ends of the tile, left and right, and the corner.  In those locations we used a similar arrangement of three tiles.  And to tie the ends, corner and sink together we used a common decorative marker, a white on blue tile depicting the moon with the halo of the sun.

For one last personal touch, we had each close family member (4 total) visit the store and select their signature tile, which were then install at the raised corners in the sink area.  Here is a detail shot of the corner:


And an overall view of the counter and splash:

DSC 1374

A final note would have to be that this was fun and playful, and in remodeling some fun is important.  For balance.

The Owner Builder Option

It is a special opportunity to be able to alter one's home to better suit how one wants to live.  It can be an attractive vision.  It can even become an object of desire.

It is not unusual, however, to find that what we want and what we can afford do not fit together.  Altering an existing house is a very labor intensive and expensive undertaking.  When the resources do not match up to the resource requirements, there are four basic options.

  • Abandon the project.
  • Find more resources.
  • Change the scope of the project to make it less expensive.
  • Change the approach to construction to make it less expensive.

The last three might be employed in combination to bridge the gap, but I'd like to focus on the last option, changing the approach to construction.  That option has three common variations:

  1. Breaking the project up into more than one part and phasing the construction.  Do now what can be afforded now, do later what can be afforded later.
  2. Acting as Owner and General Contractor.  That is, hiring sub-contractors directly and have them do the work.
  3. Acting as Owner and Builder.

Today let's look at the third variation.  It has advantages and disadvantages.  Those must be weighed carefully because there could well be a deal maker or a deal breaker amongst them.  In my view this approach is neither intrinsically good or bad.  It just depends on the circumstances.


It eliminates the labor cost, contractor and subcontractor overhead and profit, and contractor insurance expenses (general liability and workers compensation).  This can be a huge savings, anywhere in the range of 50-75%.

The cost savings may permit selected material, product and equipment upgrades.

An owner builder has complete control over construction sequence priorities.  This can allow the completion of some area or feature before others.  A contractor will normally follow a less flexible sequence in the interest of economy.  Normally the painter or the drywall hanger will only come out at one stage of the project, not multiple times throughout the course of the work.  So, an owner might complete features seen from the street first, of some other feature considered to be the most vital or important.

For some, the hands on experience of making their house is a source of real satisfaction and pride.  The same goes for the process of acquiring the necessary skills to do the work.


Excepting very small projects, what might be done in months, will take years.  This is a deal breaker for some but not others.  Hiring helpers can shorten the time, but it will also push down the savings.  Workers compensation would also become an owner cost, assuming the workers are not licensed contractors (which is variation 2 above).

Living in an unfinished house for a long time requires patience, a sense of humor, and a special quality of relationships amongst the inhabitants.  Coping with this is a future topic, but suffice to say it will be stressful to most all relationships and the downfall of some.

If the project is large enough that it can't be dabbled at on the weekends, somebody is going to have to work on the house in lieu of a normal job.  The loss of normal income can also drive down the savings of this route.

Construction is not rocket science, but it is often hard and tiring.  There is also a lot of expertise behind every trade.  None of that is secret.  There are books and videos covering everything a person would need to know.  A not insignificant amount of time will be spent learning how to do things.

A long construction time is at greater risk from the unexpected turns in the lives we live.  It may limit the opportunity to do other things that were not forseen initially.  An incomplete house may not be a liquid asset that is easily sold if the need arises.

A Zoning Check for Homeowners

Say you want to add on to your house, and you know the perfect spot to do this.  Time to hire an architect and get on with it?

Not a bad idea, but one of the first things an architect will do is research the zoning rules that apply to your property.  You can do this also, if you are so inclined, though a responsible architect will do the same and double check that you have not missed anything.  All the zoning rules in our area are publically available online.

What are zoning rules and why are they important?  They limit what you can build on your property and where you can build it. 

So how do you find out the rules for your property?  Follow these steps.

1. Find out the classification for your property.  Your city has a zoning classification for each parcel in the city.  Cities publish zoning maps which show the designation for different areas in the city.  Find your parcel on your city's map.  Many cities have interactive maps online where you can type in your address and it will display the result.

2.  Locate the Zoning Ordinance online.  Each city defines its zoning classes in its own particular way, but there are some similarities in the overall organization.  If you see "R-1" or "R-30" you will be dealing with a residential zone.  The Zoning Ordinance is always a section of the Municipal Code, or set of laws in force in your city.  Start at your city's website.

3.  Identify and note the requirements that govern how your property may be developed.  They usually fall into two groups of requirements:  general development standards which apply to all parcels, which may cover issues like parking, landscaping and zoning administrative procedures; and specific standards that apply to your zone. These rules will cover how close to each property line you may build, how tall you may build, how many total square feet you may have on your property, whether you need special zoning or design review for your proposal to name only a few.  Different cities have different particular requirements.

4.  Locate your property boundaries.  Many of the limits depend on the distance of structures from the property line and the overall area of the property.  (There are also building code issues when structures are close to property lines, but that is another topic!)  If what you hope to do brings you near any of the location or area limits, you will need to have your property lines accurately located.  This usually requires hiring a surveyor or finding a survey that has already been done for your property.  Fences in my experience are rarely accurately located, though usually they are within a foot or two.  In many cities the front property line is easy to locate because city engineering (public works) departments may have accurate drawings of curbs and gutters in relation to property lines.  This is frequently not the case, however, in hillside residential areas with old streets and no curbs. 

5.  On a drawing of your property locate your house and property lines in correct relation.

At this point you now have all the facts and circumstances to see what the zoning rules for your property will be.  

© More Than Construction, Inc., 2014