love the box

10 October 2011

In a recent blog post, I listed ten things one can do to build affordably. One solution is to avoid complexity. In my explanation I stated “the box is the simplest and [usually] the most affordable thing to build.” This is often overlooked since we feel the need to schmaltz things up add complexity with gingerbread multiple roof lines to make it look good visually appealing. I tend to take the opposite position and seek to remove everything that isn’t necessary. Call me a minimalist at times. Also, by removing the volume of the pitched roof, considerable material is removed, thus removing cost. Perhaps my argument is faulty.

Nevertheless I continued to ponder this leading me to share five of my favorite houses that keep the spirit of the “box” as part of their overall form. I can’t confirm [or deny] that these houses are affordable to the average home-owner, but I hope you see that a simple clean “box” can be quite appealing. We’ll work out that affordable part later. My list of favorite “box” houses is quite long, but I hope these make my point.

Ok, perhaps you are thinking “these don’t ‘look’ like houses to me.” Well, that is a great question to pursue. (oooh future blogging fodder). What makes a house look like a house? Is the pitched roof so deeply rooted in our collective psyche that we can’t get past this common archetypical form and see other features that demonstrate the domestic qualities of these structures? No I don’t need decaf, I have just wondered about this subject for years. Send me your thoughts about it. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy these projects.

100K House – These houses by Interface Studio Architects and developed by Postgreen Homes were intended to be affordable. Did you get that when you read the name?    These houses emerged when the developer and designer met and saw a need to provide entry level houses in urban infill sites. There is an amazing dynamic at work here is the simplest of expressions and common of materials. Ths scale is quite respectful of the neighborhood.

 

 

House in Riva San Vitale – Architect Mario Botta designed this house back in the early 1970’s in Ticino Switzerland on the banks of Lake Lugano. According to the architect’s website,  “the house establishes a dialectic play with the environment, emphasized by its minimal occupation of the site and by the thin metal bridge that establishes the physical relationship between the house and the mountain.” I think it is a great series of spaces neatly organized within a concrete cube.

 

 

Croffead House – This concrete cube by Clark and Menefee is one of the houses that inspired me in 1991 to pursue my own design studies on small houses. It sits on a suburban lot at the end of a long line of houses near two confluent rivers in Charleston South Carolina. The apparent simplicity is quickly lost as one begins to appreciate the way the architects bring together primitive materials such as concrete block and concrete together with plywood at the interior to create an amazing series of small integrated spaces composed with classic-like proportions and arrangements. It’s almost like a 20th Century Renaissance villa.  This one has been one of my favorites for over twenty years.

 

 

 

Outpost – Now we find ourselves in a harsh desert landscape in central Idaho where Tom Kundig, FAIA of Olson Kundig Architects  creates a residence and studio/workshop for an artist. In addition to the exquisitely detailed cube-of-a-house is a “paradise garden,” which is separated from the wild landscape by thick concrete walls and creates a promenade to traverse as one makes their way to the entrance.  Again, we find common materials that were chosen to resist the harsh environment and seasonal changes. The layout is rich with axial views and a revelation of space as one makes their way into and through the house. It too has Renaissance qualities to it within a strictly modern shell. As you study the photos, you quickly find that no stone is left unturned as every component is considered and choreographed to blend seamlessly with the adjacent materials. It would take a long time to discover all of the delightful moments in this house making it a treasure to own or just to visit.

 

 

Hampden Lane HouseRobert M. Gurney, FAIA creates a house in Bethesda Maryland that appears to turn its back on its neighborhood of Colonial and Craftsman style houses by exchanging a larger house for outdoor space. Is it a rebellious choice or a contextual solution on a higher level? You decide. [Search for 5104 Hampden Lane, Bethesda MD on Bingmaps and see for yourself.] The client requested a tightly efficiently house where every bit of the house is used. No wasted space in this house.  It may lack the spatial complexity or overlap of space that some of these others have, but it is quite a nice addition to the street. I think I may know how the owner feels in their neighborhood with a house that doesn’t look like the others. I like it.

 

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Send me your favorites…

photos of 100K houses by Sam Oberter, Interface Studio Architects, via ArchDaily.

photos of House in Riva San Vitale from architect’s website.

photos of Croffead House by Timothy Hursley via W.G. Clark Architects

photos of Outpost by Tim Bies/Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects via ArchDaily

photo of Hampden Lane House by Maxwell MacKenzie Architectural Photographer via Architectural Record

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6 Responses to “love the box”


  1. There is a consistency in your taste. It is not clear that the simplest geometry is preferable to the conventional townhouse – a comparison I would draw because of scale, noticable particualrly in the 100K. Other than as a matter of taste, we certainly need relief from the conventional floor plan of the traditional townhouse, and the proportions of the modern boxes wouls suffest the possibilities for departure. To place anything on a site, free standing, out of an attached contex, comes at a greater cost, though probably represent a more livable prototype than a townhosue protptype. We once found that a townhouse prototype we developed, minimal and affordable, benefitted dramatically from a freestanding siting by using the erstwhile party walls for fenestration. The problem of affordability remains, and none of the examples shown attempted to cross that threshold, (I would guess) though you suggest they are more affordable as a result of stylistic choices? Stylistic consistency does not convey affordability, particularly if the reference point is a “box” as an affordable architecture. In the real world, experience shows, clean simple unadorned modernism is far more difficult, and costly, to attain, than conventional forms.

    • leecalisti Says:

      After building my own house, which is overall, a box, I would agree it is often not necessarily the least expensive choice. However, with the rampant use of multiple gabled roofs in suburban developments, there is something to say about less material. This is especially true if one cannot experience that complexity inside the space. Thanks, I appreciate your comments.


  2. What other costs exist beyond the price of labor and materials? I think this may be where a well designed residence wins out over the over-adorned fetishes we call homes….another inspiring post reminding me why I became an architect. I often forget.

    • leecalisti Says:

      Labor and materials, that’s it. I have used the analogy that a truly beautiful woman needn’t wear any makeup. She looks amazing on her own. That’s the architecture I aspire to make.

  3. Vicky Says:

    As a home owner in a rainy country (New Zealand), I’m not a fan of flat rooves and lack of roof overhang. Invariably these lead to leaks and the need to replace, rebuild or re-clad. I cannot see beauty in these boxes – I just see cost and impracticality.

    Ironically, despite my strong feelings, I ended up falling in love with a boxy architectural house that was sited perfectly with views to die for. But we are having to do a lot of repairs before we even move in due to the leaking. And the back door with no sheltering overhang is completely impractical to use – you get soaked while trying to unlock the door!

    • leecalisti Says:

      I appreciate your contribution to this conversation. I never try to convince people otherwise, but unless there is a large overhang, the roof does not protect much of the exterior wall. Leaks and other common reasons for resistance to flat roofs can be overcome with proper installation and maintenance.

      Of course, we often neglect regionalism as architects and homeowners and fail to accept the climatic realities of where we live. We try to put desert houses in cold climates and we see the opposite occur. People like what they like and get what they can afford regardless of whether it is appropriate to a region.

      Our ancestors built things a certain way because it was smart and kept out the weather. The look was just a result of the system. Now we just want the look.


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