Good Ideas (or Smart Features That Make Perfect Sense)

Despite being a hard core environmentalist and modernist, I love cozy little corners and special nooks.  One thing I can't live without is "a little desk" that is appealing enough to invite me to sit down and study.  (Yes, we architects have to study every day for life!)


I like a desk where I can have a little art, a few momentos, plus a nice big selection of books, (preferably architecture history).


This pic is my "Blackline" bookcase, which I designed to echo abstractly the branches of the big maple tree in winter that sits right outside.

Let There Be Light

All living things need light to live, but light is also required to be just plain happy. You've probably heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, that can occur when people don’t get enough sunlight because of the climate in which they live (Seattle and London, for example) or because the days are very short (Alaska, Sweden...). Notice how your mood changes on a sunny day compared to a gray, gloomy day.


Light comes in many different varieties. All four solar orientations – north, south, east, west – evoke certain feelings and contribute certain colors to the ambient daylight. All four have different uses as well, depending on the climate in which you live. Southern light has a golden hue that’s warm and uplifting to the soul. Eastern light is clear and slightly yellow. Western light has a tinge of orange from the setting sun reaching the horizon. And Northern light’s blue and violet hues evoke a sense of coolness.


Some musings on light...


Light needs shadow to be fully appreciated. That’s why I love a little book entitled “In Praise of Shadows.”


A warning:  Be careful to avoid “too many” windows. What?! you're thinking. Isn't that impossible? No, it isn't. I’ve encountered the problem with too many windows time and again. Have you ever been in a development house that had stock windows everywhere? All the spaces felt exactly the same, didn’t they? The bedroom felt just like the living room, which felt just like the den, which was exactly like the other five bedrooms. 

You see, we not only need “light, open, airy spaces,” but we also need cozy, cave-like spaces where we can retreat and feel safe -- where there might be only one tiny window.  My point is that we need contrast in our spaces, and variety in spatial character. 

And light must be balanced with climate.  That's why in our southern climate, we avoid west facing windows if at all possible.  Western sunlight is very low in the sky and enters your house horizontally, adding lots of unwanted solar heat gain.  Overhangs won't protect you from the western sun.


Here’s my favorite quote about light at left. It’s from the great Sven Nykvist, filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s cinematographer.  I love that quote because it suggests that light is a living entity.

Without light there would be no earth, no planet, no life. So light really is everything.

South Windows and deep, sheltering overhangs...

In the northern hemisphere, most of a home’s glass should be south facing. Why? Because south is the best orientation for maximum daylight and the easiest to control on hot days when you definitely don’t want “solar gain” inside. In climates where heat is a dominate concern, there is a good argument for mostly north-facing windows.


South-facing windows and expanses of glass (or glazing, in architectural parlance) should be shaded from the high summer sun by deep, sheltering roof overhangs. A few extra feet of roof overhang can means the difference between hot, uncomfortable rooms and pleasant rooms in the summer. In the winter, the sun’s angles are low so the overhang won’t keep the sun’s warmth and illumination from reaching deeply into your home’s interior. This is a key principle of passive solar design and construction. It’s also a key to making an interior space look and feel inviting.


Please note: A “passive solar house” is not the same as a “passive house.” A passive solar house depends on capturing the sun’s warmth in some form, or forms, of masonry inside that will, in turn, radiate that warmth into the room. A passive house, or passivhaus in German, is a comprehensive energy-efficient building standard that was influenced by early passive solar designs, but which places much more importance on a building’s airtight envelope, high-efficiency windows, and conditioned air recovery. Visit for more information on passive home construction.

Breezes and Cross Ventilation

Windows that open across from each other provide cross ventilation – a year-round pleasure in places like L.A. and Hawaii, a seasonal delight here in North Carolina. During our early spring and late fall months, we can leave our windows open and let cooling breezes waft through (providing the pollen isn’t high that day). Even then, despite my love of the natural beauty of the insect world, I prefer that those little creatures don’t share my house with me, so screens on those wonderfully open windows are a must!

Capture Rain to Reduce Your Water Bill and Help the Environment

Gutters and downspouts, whose sole purpose is the keep rainwater away from your walls and foundations, trace the edges of traditional homes and buildings. With that job done, who cares where all that water goes, right?




All that water could be collected and stored in cisterns to use later for everything from watering your garden to flushing the toilets (if you have that type of system installed). The point is that you can use the water falling on your property to lower your water bill, reduce the depletion of precious water resources, and prevent storm water runoff, which takes nasty stuff from roofs, driveways, and parking lots into our water system.


Rainwater collection has been practiced for thousands of years in the Middle East and on tropical islands, such as the Bahamas. But it’s only recently been taken seriously here in the US – except for California. West Coasters have been collecting rain water for decades.

This is another one of those ancient, common sense ideas that I’m glad we’re reprising.


Insulation - A Warm, Cozy Blanket for your House

Most of the homes and buildings I design are passive and even net zero energy. Passive and net zero structures require more insulation than the standard building code requirement to achieve their strict third-party certification. 


Extra insulation (properly detailed and installed) is one of the best investments you can ever make in your home. Insulation is relatively cheap to install during construction and it pays for itself with a greatly reduced power bill over time. Another plus: Insulation is a one-time cost, while energy costs continue to rise. 


The US Department of Energy has praised passive house construction as the best path to reaching net zero, which means you’re producing all the energy you need on site. Put another way: Your house is creating all the energy it needs to keep you safe and comfortable year-round. 


When you have a super-insulated building envelope, you eliminated “thermal bridging," and you seal all gaps to prevent air infiltration, it’s going to take much less energy to heat or cool your house  – even sometimes no energy at all. On a very hot, humid August day here in North Carolina, I entered the net zero Helfaer House and it was delightfully cool with no systems running whatsoever.


Passive houses are also very quiet since there’s no mechanical system churning away. That’s a great feature in an increasingly noisy and distracting world.

Courtyards - An Ancient Archetype with Modern Appeal

Mid-20th-century Modernist architects used courtyards to provide homeowners with private outdoor spaces for dining, lounging, and entertaining al fresco while they still enjoyed their privacy.


Those houses may be Modern but their courtyards are an ancient archetype dating back to our earliest ancestors who formed courtyards with tents, huts, and other structures to protect tribe members and animals inside the courtyard from forces outside them.


I’ve seen courtyards all over the world -- in Japan, Spain, Italy, Indonesia, France (from Paris to Provence), North Africa, and the southwestern United States, just to name a few. Even the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto designed a few courtyards for houses in Finland, despite the snowy climate!


I’ve designed quite a few “courtyard houses,” as I call them, because I’m very interested in the benefits this archetype provides to modern living. (Contact me if you are interested in incorporating a courtyard into your home.)


Of course, there is an art and science to courtyard design. Here in the South, and in parts of Japan with similar climates to ours, courtyards must be designed very carefully to accommodate our hot, humid summers. Otherwise, a courtyard could turn into a heat sink!


The Art: Combined with glass walls facing the courtyard, this was another way early Modernists thinned the line between indoors and outdoors. I love courtyards because they also add warmth and grace wherever they’re located. They expand living spaces and extend sight lines. And, yes, they’re wonderful places to dine, lounge, and entertain outdoors yet with complete privacy.


The Science: Researchers in Spain have used mathematical tools to assess what’s been known for centuries: that the temperature inside the typical Mediterranean courtyard is cooler than that of the street for several reasons.* Having this cooler outdoor space close to the indoor space helps to cool the interior while saving energy use and cost.


* Courtyards cause several effects:

ï       Stratification (hot air rises, cold air falls)

ï       Convection (the walls heated throughout the day project air upwards)

ï       And air flow patterns (depending on the geometry of the space).

Scrap is Beautiful

 “Scrap” is no longer something we automatically throw away. There are many beautiful, interesting materials available now that in the past were considered “waste.”


I love using scrap stone and leftover quartz slabs from stone yards. These are always less expensive (by half) than uncut slabs, and I can combine scrap pieces to make countertops and wall finishes. 


Wood salvage is something else I love that’s becoming rather mainstream these days. Note: Salvaged wood doesn’t just come from old barns and buildings that have been torn down. For example, we used “sinker cypress” on the Helfaer House, aka "Happy Meadows Courtyard House," mentioned previously. Sinker cypress comes from old, huge cypress trees that fell into rivers on their own or were blown down by hurricane-force winds. As a result, they’ve been “preserved” under water for decades. And with reclaimed “sinker wood,” you can use large planks that are virtually unavailable any other way (unless you are pure evil and plan to cut down old-growth trees…)


Why we love reclaimed wood:

•       It’s eco-friendly and sustainable: The trees died naturally, so no trees had to be killed to provide the wood we need.

•       It has age, character, and there’s usually a story behind it that you just can’t find in brand-new lumber. The reclaimed red gum and sinker cypress we used on Happy Meadows came in giant logs that were milled to the exact sizes we needed -- a choice we wouldn’t usually have. The homeowner went to the mill to pick out his own favorite logs, which were then set aside to build the custom desk and shelves for his office and the paneled wall in his master bedroom.


When purchasing wood products, whether reclaimed or not, be sure to look for the FSC label. FSC is the Forestry Stewardship Council, which provides third-party certification that the wood products are sustainably harvested. 

Other Things We Love

(1) Screen porches. Some friends of mine from Europe don’t understand, and strenuously object to, the concept of screening a porch. They dismiss it as silly. I counter with, “Don’t you have bugs in Germany?” and “The screening of porches is one of the most brilliant vernacular construction details I know of.”   Then I challenge them to just two weeks of living without screens here in North Carolina in the summer before they beg for screens!


In the Southern states, we couldn’t enjoy sitting outside in the summer if it weren’t for screened-in porches. At any given moment, that simple screening keeps thousands of biting insects at bay. In North Carolina, screen porches are a three-season living space that we could not do without. 

Personally, I think a screen porch (with hammock) might be the most important room in a house.


(2) Wrap-around porches. Wrap-around porches are absolutely charming, inviting, and they provide a wonderful way to circulate around your house under a protective cover. I love them! They seem so generous, offering all sorts of outdoor space to meander along, rain or shine.

Color Obsession

It's a myth that modernist architects don't like to use color.  


Look back at much of the work of Le Corbusier and you will see a man who loved color and used it beautifully. From the colored light monitors of his La Tourette nunnery, to the incredible painted door of the Ronchamp Chapel, to the interior colors of Villa Savoye, you will see an incredible range of color from pastels to deep, bright hues.  


Color is so important to our lives. It affects our moods. It inspires certain feelings. Color can contribute either energy or calm to our spaces.   


Some musings on color inspiration...


...I love all colors and there are millions of combinations.   


...You can find color inspiration almost anywhere – nature, movies, a painting -- but it is important to make a personal connection with the colors you choose for your spaces. Psychology Today once reported that, “Color preferences are deeply rooted emotional responses that seem to lack any rational basis, yet the powerful influence of color rules our choices in everything from the food we eat and the clothes we wear to the cars we buy.” You do not need to follow trends or “color forecasts” issued by the paint industry - these will pass.  Choose colors that speak to you.


... I frequently pull colors from nature on the site where a project is located. But that’s only one of an infinite number of methods for choosing color. One of my client’s expressed the desire for a “pop art” feeling in his commercial office renovation, so we used clean, crisp, bright colors -- and lots of them.


...Sometimes we need a deep, saturated color that we can sink into, like crawling under a big, fluffy duvet. That’s why I like to use my clients’ favorite colors in their most private rooms, which are usually the bedrooms. These spaces should be sanctuaries, nests. So I want the color palettes to help create spaces to which my clients will always want to return -- where they will feel cradled and cared for.

...Once I painted walls a deep orange to mimic firelight.  (The fire-lit rooms at “Hogwarts” in the Harry Potter movies were my inspiration!) And with the right uplighting on the walls, that space feels infinitely warmer in the winter. By the way, this was in a modern space!


…And, of course, white is a color. White has undertones, so be careful when you’re selecting whites because they have dominant undertones, either cool or warm, that will affect how everything looks in the space. 


…White can have a dominant undertone of any of the following:  green, pink, yellow or blue.  In my experience, the green and pink undertones can be the most disconcerting.  Used wrong, they can destroy a space. 





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"Light can be gentle, dangerous, dreamlike, bare, living, dead, misty, clear, hot, dark, violet, spring-like, falling straight, sensual, limited, poisonous, calm and soft."

Sven Nykvist

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