Wood Worker

USAF Captain, electrical engineer, contractor and designer

Pictures represent my designs and work.  The architectural designs are done with clients as collaborators and co-conspirators.  The furniture was  designed by me (with exception  of two Limbert table designs) and also made by me.

I have made a few random observations on:  1. design, 2. design details, 3. choosing a contractor --- which I offer for your indignation.

What constitutes good design is the stuff of countless books, essays and PhD theses.  Since it is a synthesis of art and function and art is wholly subjective, “good design” probably eludes concise definition. Architectural design in particular can simultaneously reflect structure, function, art, history, cultural aesthetics, and psychology of owner and designer.  It can also be, at the same time, semiotic, conveying a non-verbal meaning.  And  being non-verbal I suspect this semiotic message is highly metaphorical, metaphors being  ideas that our brains seem uniquely designed for, and thus adding another barrier of uncertainty to attempts at precisely defining “good architecture”.  In this metaphorical world lies the aesthetic allure of the curve.  The arch, the dome, hypar (hyperbolic paraboloid), they are all found repeatedly in nature and we are imprinted.

     It seems that basic room design has remained relatively unchanged for 6000 years but the exterior has changed and that change has been driven by technology.  Technology has unleashed a number of great looking curved roofs and building outlines but these don’t often find their way into residential design.  Residential design is largely conservative.  Someone attempting to make an architectural statement will usually do so with refinements to existing designs, needing to communicate intent in an understandable language.  Too much departure from the history of flat interlocking planes of residential and commercial design risks confounding the observer.  Perhaps good design is  best described as  the supreme court justice tried to describe pornography: “I cannot define it but I know it when I see it”.

    I look for a sense of harmony, regardless of the elements of tension and eclecticism that might be present, that is brought about by the repetition of line, detail, color and texture that anchors and ties it all together.  I remember  visiting Taliesen  West and the docent reverently offered that Frank Lloyd Wright said there are 4 basic shapes---straight line, perfect circle, triangle and  square—and that all design is so composed.  I beg to differ with St Frank, but in nature these four shapes are noticeably absent, except in crystals.  The one basic polygon that is evident in nature is the hexagon----beehives, bubbles and basalt.  And there is little evidence to suggest that in 2 million years of anthropoid evolution we had interacted with an environment where these shapes existed.  Rather, our brains are wired for a nature of curved surfaces and wiggly lines, of an infinite palette of color and fractal edges.  A recent study has shown that, regardless of culture, people are drawn to pictures of an elevated view of a valley with water flowing through.  Anthropologists interpret that our ancestors recognized the safety and shelter of an elevated overhang or cave overlooking a dependable food source and it’s still hardwired in our brain.  The love of curves is right there simmering below the surface.

    And that is why I think that in spite of the tyranny of the straight line in architecture we are repeatedly drawn to the curve, to the organic.  That little retreat we all like to get away to has look and feel more in common with hobbits than with chrome and glass.  Why are we attracted to and visit old towns?  Can it be simply nostalgia on the part of a large part of the population that never grew up during “those times”.  I think a subliminal attraction to these places is they were first designed for humans , not vehicles, and secondly, the effects of weather, gravity, use and neglect have softened the edges and planes of these structures and given them a more organic feel.

    I think introducing curves into a design elicits a pleasurable response, although subtle.  Adding too many elements at odds with our angular architectural heritage courts non-acceptance but does not imply bad design.  I think this is because the body of architectural design has taken on the stature of a meme, an idea of self-replicating information that leaps infectiously from mind to mind.  A mind virus, if you will.  Like a genome code, an operable meme selects against non-acceptance and also require early childhood exposure.  Like religion.

The new field of computational mathematics will pave the way to acceptance of organic shapes.  Animation (two-dimensional design)  has been revolutionized by fractals and tessellation;  both are step- children of computational math.    Applied to three dimensions, these and other techniques will be part of design algorithms that are available to anyone with a computer, not just a structural engineer.  And structural systems such as ferrocement which are made to accommodate curved surfaces will be liberated by the math.  And in the case of ferrocement the resultant structures are much stronger for seismic wind and snow load factors.  And fireproof, low tech, cheap, low maintenance, long lived.  The way most U.S. houses are built today is antediluvian.  They require high skill and a large variety of components.  Anyone who thinks lumber is a renewable resource owns stock in Weyerhaeuser.  “Engineered “ products such as truss joists, oriented strand board and composite beams evolved as much for their structural predictability as the deterioration in quality of harvested lumber.  The trend towards factory- produced housing solves some of these issues of quality control, weather dependency and lack of jobsite skills.  This factory approach works with the current stable of architectural designs.  Organic designs, on the other hand, can be more compatible with low cost, low tech, low impact, site –built housing.  The rising cost of land confronts this head on.  High land costs put property in the hands of  developers who tend to be the last in line to try new ideas.  The widespread acceptance of the Uniform Building Code unintentionally perpetuates existing architectural stereotypes and harbors the spectre of unintended consequences.  None can argue the code makes the buildings safer and more costly.  It also has a very homogenizing effect on design.  Design and structural  systems not covered explicitly by the code are forced to go thru engineering and procedural hoops that discourage innovation except for those with deeper pockets.  That concentrates innovative design in fewer hands.  In genetics most successful evolution depends on a collection of isolated gene pools responding to highly varied environmental conditions.  When isolated gene pools merge, as they are in today's’ travel connected world, new combinations arise but over the long run the product tends towards homogeneity and mediocrity.  I see the widespread enforcement of the code as analogous to this merger.  The only way out of this ensured mediocrity other than an abrupt environmental change may be the new liberating math and its resultant technology.  Stretching the analogy, the new math acts like a mutation which allows these new structural systems to occupy new, relatively unexplored design niches.  Once curved exteriors and roofs are economically viable they will be aesthetically desirable..  That would precede rethinking how interior spaces look.  This new paradigm will be driven by the technology.

      I think people are drawn to small detail; these delight and are digestible.  And they (details) are the best venue for the expression of the individual craftsmen involved and subtly reinforce the role of humans to their habitat.

    It often takes some convincing to get clients to open up to more creativity, but once they can be made to see the reason, the historical context if any, and the intended effect they become confident and enthusiastic.  And the process becomes fun.

    Have you noticed that today’s tacky detail becomes tomorrows darling.  Time has a way of validating design, seemingly the longer the better.  For structures several generations old, the local architectural review committee may view them as divinely inspired and allow no changes.   I suspect a great number of those Victorian houses were built by builders with no formal design experience whose exuberance in borrowing from every known architectural style and combining these in a cacophony of detail resulted in what may have been viewed as vulgar then but terrifically quaint now.    If a gothic window had no historic provenance would it be widely accepted in the modern design vernacular without the implied European flavor, the drama of soaring cathedrals, the exuberance of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment?  Witness the semi-circular window that has been shoehorned onto the face of many tract and custom home of the last two decades.  Might these attempts be seen unbalanced and unharmonious in spite of the implied provenance of Europe, the Mediterranean, the Italian Renaissance?  Palladio turns over in his grave.

    Early man attempting to raise walls meant using reproducible modules (bricks with flat faces).  Roof spans were related to available timber size.  The rules for how to build were empirical/observational and passed on verbally.  With the advent of Euclidian geometry in 300 BC a language was born for discussing building but not getting predictable results.  Just as the requirements of warfare (cannon ballistic trajectories) spurred the development of new mathematical tools so too did the development of the dome in architecture.  The materials of construction—stone, brick, timber and cement—remained the same for centuries until the advent of steel and glass.  Yet they could not be predictably combined until Newton’s formal system of forces and calculus, the latter for which he unfairly took full credit.  And curves were always treated as special cases in the math. And the math had to be stretched to accommodate.  There has always been a time, skill and money penalty for incorporating curves into structure and decorative detail.  Plus the cost of formwork is prohibitive.  Note the short life of that glorious movement of Art Nouveau. But I think things are about to change in favor of the curved surface.

    Forgive any pedantic flavor.  I am just trying to make sense of what I see.

In choosing a designer or an architect you are more likely to be satisfied if they are conversant with a variety of styles, their development and cross-fertilization.  This eclectic background can help avoid the major design pitfall of aping what exists. Most new, expensive custom homes may be successful at being impressive but charming they are not.  “Charming” carries with it the connotation of the salubrious effects of time, but I mean something more than this and am inclined to return to that indefinable “harmony”.  My per-version, without the excess baggage of quaint, cute and aged, can thus accommodate such disparate worlds as contemporary to bungalow.  Look in the older, better neighborhoods and identify those designs to which you are drawn and then identify which details enhance that attraction.  Take pictures.  On larger projects I always ask for folders of clippings and photographs from each of the clients involved.  I also ask that if they are not on exactly the same design page that they not try to reconcile their differences on their own.  A third party designer can more easily see commonalities and solutions.  To have someone design who is not intimately involved with construction and costs is asking for sticker shock when the design is completed.  The conversation about budget should be open and ongoing.  There are many architects that can stay within budget.  I met one once.  On the other hand, many of the best design details evolve during construction and a budget structured to allow for this can result in  innovative and unique designs.  This is when building can truly being inspiring and fun for customer and contractor.

Philosophy aside, I see the biggest bang for the buck are skylights and colorful paint.  Skylights provide more lumens per square foot than windows, for more hours of the day, are more secure, and can vent stratified hot air from tall and cathedral ceilings.  Paint is cheap and a major mood setter.


    Kitchens are collections of boxes and flat planes, not something I think we find inherently comfortable.  Anything that can be done to humanize this space is desirable.  Seventy percent of the look of a kitchen is in the cabinet doors.  Were you to design the kitchen features with function  and common sense foremost the doors and cabinets would be smooth laminate rather than furniture grade wood with degradable finishes, fading woodwork, and grooves and molding designed to capture peanut butter, milk and dust.  If laminate countertops were invented tomorrow and not having had a history of being in every tract home , their low cost, durability, color/texture selection and integral splash and lip would make them the rage.

    All kitchens weep. And so will you.  Eventually the ice maker, dishwasher, disposal, sink, water filter will leak and  wooden flooring will suffer the most and cost the most to repair.  All floors will suffer eventually from slow leaks so catchment pans under sinks, refrigerators, dishwashers and water heaters are better than a good idea.

    Why can there not be more art in kitchens?  Who said the cabinets must be all one color, the countertops one level and of the same material, that there’s any need for doors below countertop when full extension drawers work so much better?

     Faucets that come out of the wall make the sink so much easier to clean.  Faucets with integral sprayers have much higher rates of failure regardless of the cost.

    The most overlooked kitchen detail is the wastebasket and recycle bin.  These are often approached in use with wet, dirty, full hands.  Being  forced to open a furniture grade door or drawer by hand could be replaced by a pedal action opener or rocker panel wastebaskets of color matched to kitchen and placed in a well-thought-out niche.  I don’t think trash compactors are a panacea to this problem. For small families and infrequent emptying they can easily generate smells, and if you are recycling, a great deal of the refuse goes into other containers.

    Hopefully, the atrocious selection of fluorescent fixtures, now mandated in baths and kitchens in California, will soon be replaced by the light of the future--- LEDs.

    Rather than the cost and footprint of a second oven which gets used only twice a year, consider a second convection microwave.  Cheaper, smaller and probably would see year-round use.

    The cheapest overhead hood against a wall works as well or better than any downdraft system.  Spatter and steam from the front burners hardly makes the journey to the downdraft hood.


    The most overlooked and misunderstood aspect of interior design is lighting.  It is an afterthought.  I have only met one lighting consultant who knew what he/she was talking about.  Observe those places, commercial and residential,  where illumination flatters the room and its inhabitants and note what type of illumination makes this possible. Casinos pay for the best lighting advice and follow it.  Chances are it is many sources of low output  from a mix of task, mood, background and backwash lighting.  Overhead can lights usually leak air into the attic, regardless of their manufacturers claims, even the IC rated ones.  I don’t think a collection of holes flatters a ceiling.  And they don’t adequately illuminate walls and ceilings.  Consider sconces.  They can wash ceilings and walls and can have opaque covers so you don’t have to look at the light source or translucent covers for subdued light or decoration/mood.  Floor and table lamps need to be considered at design stage.  Lamps that provide task lighting often shine in the eyes of someone across the room.  Translucent versus opaque shade, height above table, light balance in the room, color spectrum of bulbs, mood lights (visual eye candy but not much of a contributor to overall illumination)—these are critical factors in room illumination.  A worst- case offender is usually the dining room light.  Bright enough to illuminate a dining room table, it is then probably too bright and too low for good eye contact.  Better for surgery.  Consider a fixture of many little lights or one of primary up wash with stained glass below.  You don’t want to see the bulb.


     Bathrooms are bastions of outmoded design.  My guess is that whoever “designed” the modern toilet never cleaned one.  Would you design a toilet with surface nooks and crannies that are unsanitary and unsightly, the lid slams down, the tank is necessarily visible and situated so low there is insufficient head pressure to clear contents in one flush, the seat is cold, the standard seat doesn't’t fit the uro-genital configuration of half of  its users?  Why do you think that all commercial toilets are elongated and have an open front seat?  We are unfairly charged a premium for simple design changes that deal with these issues.  Why would you not install a urinal for half the population who cannot hit the bowl of water or for the other half for whom good aim is rewarded with spatter?  Why would you not put a toilet in a separate closet if you had the room with an exhaust fan on a timer?  No thank you for sharing.

     Bidets are wonderful devices found in every part of sophisticated Europe and elsewhere.  I have never convinced one customer to install one unless they have traveled.

     Faucets that come out of walls leave the sink more sanitary and the selection of these is growing.

     Large showers may look luxurious but there are serious tradeoffs.  They are not cozy.  There is a big penalty in water heater sizing to run two heads simultaneously.  If two people are using one head, one of them is standing in the cold (during cold weather) waiting their turn.  I’ve never heard of my customers sitting on the built-in seat.  Benches get used for shaving legs and collecting shampoo bottles.  Nobody sits there and lets the now-cooled spray hit them in the face.  A shower with a good CFM fan on a timer is a good counter-terrorist move against the inevitable mildew buildup.  An ideal surface for mildew is grout.  Current strains of mildew seem to be selectively bred with an appetite for silicone.   Just sealing grout is a finger –in- the dike approach.  Four successful strategies for mildew control are an exhaust fan on a timer that can run long after the shower is over, squeegying the shower walls, raising bathroom temperature or airflow to encourage evaporation.

    Mirrors are cheap for the effect that they have.  They make small rooms bigger and lighter and they are so much more accurate that weight scales.

    Water and whim are the two major sources of a contractor’s income.  Exterior water drainage detail is the most abused aspect, equal parts ignorance and inattention to detail.  Major contributors are low-pitched roofs, deleted overhangs in pursuit of some architectural style, reliance on caulking instead of flashing, ignoring the accumulation of organic matter in gutters and cracks, water- catching ledges and architectural wood details  ,complicated roofs, and undirected runoff from downspouts.  Much exterior trim mimics in wood what used to be done in stone ages ago, particularly in drier climates.  I try to minimize the amount of wood exposed to the exterior with overhangs, stucco, stone, cement board siding, composite trim and decking, etc. but will readily admit that wood has an irreplaceable aesthetic. Sacramento's Mediterranean climate is death on exterior wood and paint.

    In the Sacramento and Central Valley heat avoidance is of prime energy consideration.  Roof color is of prime importance.  Trees, large overhangs, light exterior color, proper orientation, whole house fans, running ducting thru conditioned spaces---much of good energy design is not reflected in the mandated Title 24 energy calculations.  In my experience all attics are under-ventilated for this climate.  Only recently have there been controlled studies of unventilated membrane roofs (and unventilated sub-floors) which overturn some of the traditional design details.  A tree over a house is an extreme example of a properly ventilated attic.  Reduce the space between the tree (roof) and the shelter (ceiling) and you begin to trap and retain heat. 

Most advice you read on this matter misses the point.  Yes, license, bond, insurance and CSLB complaints  should be checked.  But the key is track record, track record, track record.  Of course a contractor is not going to supply bad references so your mission is to ask for many and then query them all in depth.  You are listening for what they say in common and the enthusiasm , nay, the rabidity, with which they speak.  This is when you should find out about the more important factors: How amenable to changes and how are they handled and priced.  What were subcontractors like (neatness and punctuality).  What efforts at cleanliness—dust, clutter, mud, runoff.  Was the contractor a source of ideas and solutions for the inevitable changes and oversights?  How many jobs are handled simultaneously?  Is the contractor accessible?  In the long run the least important factor may be price.   Basing a contractor choice primarily on the bid is naive.  The other factors will far overshadow any perceived savings.

    The contract cannot ensure your expectations of quality.  A good contractor will not likely raise or lower his/her prior work quality for you.  And a good contractor will be as actively qualifying you as a customer as vice versa.  I am sorry, but I need to like my customer before I get contractually obligated.. 


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