The Gordon House

We were near Silverton, Oregon for a wedding last week and took the opportunity to visit the Gordon House, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses, at the Oregon Garden.

I was particularly curious to experience Wright’s low ceilings and dropped soffits. I’ve been reading Sarah Susanka’s Not So Big House series, and she’s a big proponent of this kind of ceiling height variety.

There seemed to be two ceiling heights in the Gordon House: about 6’8″ in the entryway, halls and bedrooms, and about 11’8″ in the great room.

The theory is that ceiling height changes help to define distinct spaces and levels of intimacy within an open floor plan. This seems true to me. “They” also say lower ceilings in pass-through spaces create a feeling of compression that enhances the feeling of grandeur of arriving in the taller rooms. That one I’m less sure about.

This is on my mind because I wanted to vault the ceiling in the main room of our house, to create some grandeur. I eventually concluded that it was impractical, and started looking for other ways to solve the problem of an oppressive drywall ceiling. Going lower instead of higher seemed like a surprisingly risky move.

6’8″ is low. The Schindler House, built 40 years before the Gordon House, is also shockingly “horizontal.” Here’s a photo of my 6′ 6″ father encountering a beam there.

schindler house beamsIt’s interesting that strikingly low ceilings were used in modern architecture for several decades, and now nobody does them. Why did they go so low? And why has the standard 8′ ceiling has become a minimum now, with custom houses going higher instead of lower?

The tour guide pointed out two major patterns that organize the house.

The first is a 7′ square module: the scores in the slab, 7′ apart, align with the cinderblock pillars that support the ceiling beams. Thus, the ‘ribs’ of the building are 7′ on center. The module is old idea in architecture; Vitruvius describes using the width of a column as a module to determine other dimensions in a building, including the height of the column.

I’m not sure where the 7′ module went when it came to ceiling height – why weren’t the ceilings 7′ and 14′ instead of 6′ something and 11′ something? Apparently Wright wasn’t a slave to the module. (He does seem to have been a slave to alignment though. Notice how the built-in shelving and trim are aligned with the horizontal lines in the brickwork.)

The second pattern is a 15 degree angle. Custom furniture was part of Wright’s design package – whether you wanted it or not – but apparently Mr. Gordon thought Wright’s usual furniture looked very uncomfortable. Wright asked what was the most comfortable thing he could think of. Mr. Gordon cited his new ’57 Chevy pickup. Wright sent one of his apprentices to sit in the pickup and suss out what made it comfortable, and the apprentice determined that it was the 15 degree slant of the seat back. This angle is used not only for the built-in bench (which was indeed quite comfortable), but also on everything else, from the furniture and trim to the window fretwork.

On the one hand, these abstract systems of organizing the built environment seem uptight and disconnected, a way of grasping for control and order that has little to do with the needs of the person living in the building. On the other hand, the Gordon house feels calm and expansive, despite a lot of detail.

Given the choice between symmetry and asymmetry, Wright seems to choose the latter. The bedrooms, where the beds are centered and flanked by furniture on each side, are the most symmetrical rooms in the house. Other elements are, as Susanka would say, “one bubble off.” This kind of asymmetry (like the fireplace below) seems like one of the most non-intuitive aspects of the design. I think it looks great, and I never would have thought of it.

Our renovation is underway.

The framers have built many of the new walls and window frames, and I keep adjusting my drawings to reflect the new details as we work them out.

Sarah Susanka’s Not So Big House series has been a big help in this process. Her books are like Pattern Language, but with fewer patterns and more pictures. Her light to walk towards idea is the reason I added the tall skinny window at the end of the kitchen wall, to draw you towards the hallway.

Donald Judd’s Marfa kitchens

A few months ago I visited Donald Judd’s La Mansana de Chinati in Marfa, Texas.

I was most inspired by his domestic spaces, which were not really on the tour, but could be glimpsed around the periphery. Look at that shelf behind the kitchen counters – so handy and beautiful!

My photos of the house kitchen, below, are terrible, but I find myself coming back to them to study the details of the furniture and the room itself:

Another thing I liked about Judd’s studios is that there’s a daybed in almost every room. That level of human comfort seems rare among modernists. As my brother-in-law Ely said, “there can be a sense that the staging of human life is not their first purpose.”

If you have a chance to visit Judd’s Marfa house and studios, don’t miss it.

Cabin Before & After

The framers start repairs on our new house today. It seemed like a good time to reflect on the year or so that it took to turn the shed into the cabin (many intermediate steps blogged here).

Like tiny-homes-on-wheels, the cabin circumvented the permitting process by being classified as a temporary structure, because it is on skids. It’s 10′ x 20′ on the outside, but because we added framing inside to super-insulate it’s 8′ x 18′ inside (144 sq ft). Because the cabin only needs to serve as a bedroom (we have the trailer kitchen and a bathhouse), we’re not using the space nearly as intensively as a tiny house would.

The porch roof is designed to shade the south-facing glass doors in the summer and let sun in in the winter.

Tiny Trailer Living, Year 3

I posted a bunch of pictures when we first moved into the trailer (and some were published in Lloyd Kahn’s book Tiny Homes on the Move). We’ve been living here over two years now and have made some changes, so I thought I’d post an update.

So many of the tiny homes on the internet are photographed before anyone has ever moved in, so I hope you’ll enjoy the realistic clutter I’ve staged for you.

Click through to read the captions.




Funnels, canning jars and the power of standardization


Norpro wide mouth funnelI was going to write a review of the Norpro Wide Mouth Funnel for the website Cool Tools, because the former is one of my favourite kitchen tools and the latter one of my favourite stuff blogs. But I realized the funnel is part of a larger system of canning jars in my kitchen, and that you have to be into jars to get excited about this funnel.

The canning jar – better known as the Mason or Ball jar – is the only cheap, standardized food storage solution I know, and therein lies its beauty.

There are, of course, fancier, more expensive jars available, but buying enough to be truly useful is cost-prohibitive. With new designs you run the risk the company will stop making them after you’re heavily invested. Weck and Fido jars, while classic and useful for specific purposes, lack cross-brand standardization: you take apart the lid for cleaning (so many pieces!) and then wonder which jar that lid belongs to. Similar lid-hunts will result if you build your food storage system around used peanut butter and jam jars. Not so the canning jar.

Usually around $1 apiece (or 25 to 50 cents in thrift stores), canning jars are cheap enough to build a collection. I have at least a dozen of each size in regular rotation in my kitchen, pantry and fridge and use them many times a day:

• I pack lunch items, including soup, tea, pudding, and nuts or seeds, in half pint and pint jars which then go into an insulated lunch bag (available at your local thrift store).
• Pint jars double as drinking glasses, of course. At our wedding we had an assortment of them and coloured sharpies for guests to label them with. Classy, I know.
Immersion blenders fit snugly into a wide-mouth jar to make shakes, mayonnaise or whipped cream. Leftovers can be easily capped and stored.
• When making sauerkraut or other anaerobic ferments, a 4oz canning jar makes a handy weight inside a wide mouth or bail-top jar, to keep the veggies under the brine.
• Straight-sided jars can be used in the freezer without breaking. Put them in warm water for a few minutes and the food slides right out.

Amco strainer

The generic canning jar is fair game for all kinds of innovative accessories. My favourites are the aforementioned funnel, which stacks elegantly on top of a small strainer and allows you to strain and store in one go. You don’t know how much you want this function until you have it. One-piece lids are also handy.

(There are a myriad of other accessories, including the cuppow, Kraut Kaps, ReCAP, Tattler lids, and the Holdster. So far none of these have proven themselves indispensable, or even all that useful, but they’re evidence that the magnificent canning jar continues to inspire.)

The website Food In Jars has a useful taxonomy of canning jar sizes. Note that my infatuation with jars begins and ends with the wide mouth variety. Unless you have tiny hands, regular canning jars are a pain to hand wash and should be banished to the tool shed.

Although “salad in a jar” is a thing, canning jars don’t make great lunch containers  for sandwiches or, ahem, salads. As far as I’m concerned there really isn’t a perfect non-plastic lunch container on the US market. I’ve tried many, from Indian tiffins to Ikea glass lunch containers. Inevitably they aren’t leak proof, or they are but then they get a dent, or you lose the lid, or the seal gets filthy or wears out, and then the parts aren’t replaceable, or the company stops making them and you have to buy a new set and throw away the old lids. I hate throwing shit away. Which is why I dream that one day someone will design a standardized, open-source, leak-proof travel bowl. I already have a name for it: the extra-wide mouth. 

Next in the series: An Ode to the Silicone Spatula…

Pod Living: Brian’s Off Grid Organic Farm

From Owen Geiger’s Natural Building Blog:

“Brian is an “obsessive craftsman” who believes he can build most anything in his life. On his Oregon farm he has built, or renovated, 5 tiny structures. After being told by the county that he couldn’t erect a yurt, he built a code-approved main house “to give us a place to legally stay”.

Once the main house was built, he created several smaller structures (less than 200 square feet) on the property from 90% local materials.

When we started fixing up the trailer I figured, “If we live in it two years, it will be worth it.” It’s been almost two years already, and we’re making plans for more “pods” nearby that will make things comfortable for another “five years or so.” (By “pod” I mean a purpose-specific shelter that is either temporary and movable, or falls under California’s 120 sq. ft. accessory structure limit, therefor requiring no building permit.)

We already have a bathhouse and a secondary kitchen/pantry where we keep our fridge, freezer and dry goods, which we hope to add a sink to soon. Next up is a sleeping pod, since the trailer is cold in the winter and noisy when the wind blows. Also, more shade – over the trailer and nearby – to get us through the summers. Later we might add studios for each of us (right now I’m using an RV as a sewing studio).

I’ve been referring to all this as “pod living,” or my “inside out house” since it consists of a bunch of small units around a yard/garden. It seems like the logical evolution of the tiny house concept in a rural context, and people are doing it – this video is an awesome example – but I haven’t come across a name for it really.