July 16, 2014
by bob
3 Comments

Our vacation and train ride across the country – travel log

Every few years we we take a vacation!

This time around it was to visit Seattle to say goodbye to my wife’s family home which will be razed to make way for a bunch of poorly designed condos. The house is on a double wide lot in the Madison Valley neighborhood. The house itself is a nice little craftsman that would otherwise need a lot of work. The yard is full of plums, figs, apples, kiwi vines, blackberries and assorted other plants so the big sad thing for all of us is losing all that.

The neighborhood is being “gentrified” with new, maxed out square footage modern buildings with, for the most part, only a few token shrubberies.

The last straw causing my wife’s folks to sell was when the neighbor’s house came down and three new condo units went up, towering over their house. I toured the middle one at an open house and took pictures from the roof deck of the in-law’s house. They developer built a retaining wall right up against the foundation of the in-law’s house which was, apparently, illegal in this case but happens commonly because the hassle of litigation prevents most people from bothering and the fines for being found “at fault” are less than the profits from doing it in the first place. Apparently this was a utility easement not to be covered.

Seattle has most excellent playgrounds with much “vestibular stimulation” of which I availed myself on a few occasions, resulting in severe queasyness.

Vestibular play from Robert Swinburne on Vimeo.

The neighborhood had much interesting and new modern architecture to look at although Much of it involved gratuitous use of materials and forms (overdone) so I’m currently on modernist overload. Most of what I saw had little relationship to the site other than topography on sloped sites (long stairs outside of buildings) This is mostly because the new buildings were built for maximum square footage on a given lot. There was very little room for green space left over although there was much median strip gardening going on. There is still some pockets of eccentricity and a few green-space holdouts in the neighborhood but I fear that in 20 years, these too will disappear.

Seattle is nice and all. Charlotte poisoned pigeons in the Park
(click link for original video of Poisoning Pigeons by Tom Lehrer)

But the funnest part of our trip for me was the Amtrak train ride out there. We Left Albany on an overnight Amtrak train to Chicago to visit Grampa Allen there. Our train was delayed for several hours near Gary Indiana and I shot this video with my I-phone:

IMG 1331 from Robert Swinburne on Vimeo.

I think these are mostly steel mills (?) There were miles and miles of colossal and fantastic architecture right along the train tracks. It was stunning.

There was a very cool thunderstorm in Chicago one night.

Chicago Derecho Storm Video and Time-lapse Highlights – June 30, 2014 from Craig Shimala on Vimeo.

In Chicago we went to the Museum of Science and Industry where Charlotte fell in love with model boats which fit in well with her long standing aspiration to become a pirate.

Here is a view of the back of the museum which is more interesting than the front – Other architects will know what I mean, we are always ducking around back of buildings for a look.

This area of Chicago fascinates me because of the 1893 Chicago World’s fair with all the fascinating stories surrounding it (Read Devil in the white city) and all the amazing but temporary architecture.

We then continued on for two days to Chicago along Amtrak’s northern route. This led through North Dakota and Montana before reaching Spokane and Western Washington. Our country is very flat in places.

I found it interesting nonetheless and was interested to see the “placemaking” efforts of small homes in the middle of nowhere. The usual tack was to plant trees and in some places you could see a grove of mature trees signifying that a house once stood in amongst them. Some folks planted in a regular and geometric fashion and others much more randomly but in many cases there was nothing at all save a few shells of abandoned buildings.

LOTS of room for wind and solar power.

Things got hilly once we hit the Cascades.

We flew back to the East Coast at the end of our vacation but that was just a plain old boring plane ride. Although there was a full moon at sunset over Baltimore.

Now I’m back at work and the world didn’t end without me.

May 14, 2014
by bob
1 Comment

Marlboro, VT: High Performance House with Vapor-Open Walls and Roof

Kent and I have worked together a bunch in the past and we are working on a project currently. This is a lovely little project that illustrates how using a few very high performance products can allow us to reconsider how we use materials elsewhere, often going back to more traditional materials. Note: I had nothing to do with this one.
I promise to get some more recent photos soon and there is a link below to the full article on foursevenfive.com

http://foursevenfive.com/marlboro-vt-high-performance-house-with-vapor-open-walls-and-roof/

May 9, 2014
by bob
9 Comments

A House for Slow Living

A House for Slow Living
The original concept came to me in a dream (yes – I dream architecturally) I think the dream may have been generated by this image which has been on my bulletin board fora few years:

The original sketch was called “a house for food”

The core concept was centered around the growing, preparation and consumption of food which lends itself to the idea of gatherings of family and friends and leads to the notion of how to live in a close relationship to the local environment. From my own experience I drew upon the old fashioned ideas of hunkering down by the fire on a cold winter evening, opening the house up to the sounds, smells and breezes of a summer day, “putting food by” and making routine preparations for winter in the Autumn, starting seedlings on a windowsill in the spring, caring for children or elders. Also, how can we appreciate the beauty of the winter landscape and light without feeling overcome by it. This is a common issue in the Northeast. Where do you sit to watch a thunderstorm rolling in or to watch the snow fall? Music! – not just acoustics but around here, everybody is also a musician. How does that fit into our daily lives?
Much inspiration is to be found in images and stories depicting rural life from previous times in Europe and America. I am drawn to the imagery of hard working English country houses where the real life of the house centers between the kitchen and the door stoop leading directly to the working yard and gardens. Think: Peter Rabbit in Mr. McGregor’s Garden by Beatrix Potter with a potting shed, cold frames and lots of cabbages.
I am fascinated by early New England farms and town dwellings and how lives were played out in them. Not the big events but the little, day to day, season to season routines. Light and fresh air are celebrated and sought after and even, perhaps, taken for granted in an age before television and telephones. Materials are worn but durable, practical and show their age and history and that is where their beauty lies.

The Building Science aspect of design and detailing that we are all so immersed in lately addresses the idea of being able to lock the door and walk away for a month in the winter and not worry about much of anything. The neighbor has the key and will water the plants. Building Science addresses being what we are calling “net zero” so you are not storing and burning fossil fuel on site and paying for it as well. Building Science addresses the notion of simplicity – who needs a heating system that could go on the fritz and bust your pipes and freeze all your house plants so when your neighbor comes over to water the house plants, he finds an awful mess and has to call you in some recently devastated country where you are doing relief work. Building Science allows you to return in March to a house filled with fresh air and no mildew. (building science can’t help with what you left in the fridge) Building Science can free you from many previously taken for granted maintenance issues and expenses such as painting and periodic repair, maintenance and replacement of the mechanical parts of the house because now you have fewer and simpler systems.

How then, to marry my heady and romantic thoughts with the physics of modern building science? How do I pack all of this sensuality and feeling into a house that celebrates the process of living this chosen life rather than reminding one of the potentially inherent drudgery?
Since these ideas are very personal to me, it isn’t very difficult to make a series of design moves and decisions that bring me pretty close. I have been moving in this direction for much of my life. I am often “pretty close” but getting to that higher level is tricky and elusive. I’m not there yet with this design but it’s still early….

In this design, I’m trying to balance small and simple with a richness of space that goes far beyond light and shadow, a good floor plan and simplicity of form and add my own interpretation of what it can mean to live in Vermont and lead a life integrated with the climate and culture of the place. I’m drawing heavily on history and my own sense of aesthetics as well as all my cumulative observations and experience.

Dang! Maybe I should tear down my own house and build something like this!

For those interested in the Slow Living Movement, Brattleboro has a Slow Living Summit coming up in June associated with the Strolling of the Heiffers parade and festival.

March 13, 2014
by bob
0 comments

Finding space without adding space

I did something for myself! Soon, we will be faced with fitting two kids in one small bedroom in our small house and I had some ideas spinning around in my head about how to make our limited space work much better. Size isn’t everything – it’s how you use it. These two images are packed with lots of little moves that add a ton of space especially storage and closet space. I put some Ikea bureaus in there from the Sketchup warehouse after removing the closets. Sometimes closets take up too much space for how much storage you gain from them and this is a perfect example. The kids each will get clearly defined space within one bedroom to minimize the inherent fratricide potential.

bob’s bedrooms from robertswinburne on Sketchfab.

And here is the original – current layout

March 10, 2014
by bob
0 comments

Steel Stair retrofit

Here is a lovely little project I’m working on. The existing steel spiral stair shown here is tight and impractical as well as in a poor location for the floor plan of the house.

I designed a fairly minimalistic steel stair which will be installed in a different location and will be much easier to negotiate. The design process included trying every solution possible in rapid fire succession to make sure I wasn’t overlooking anything better. Then developing this with a sketchup model just enough to see how it could look in the space.

Then back to the site for more careful measuring and consideration. Then These detailed drawings. The design and detailing allow for a fair amount of “fudging it” and flexibility in adjustment as an inherent part of the design. – I expect to get some good feedback from the steel fabricator as well.

February 17, 2014
by bob
4 Comments

Passive House Training – One year later.

Note: this blog entry was published on Green Building Advisor on March 31, 2014

I have been asked about my Passive House consultant training by other architects enough times that I though I’d write up a quick synopsis, one year later.

For me, the Passive House training was very useful for several reasons, not the least of which was the networking aspect. It is a small community with some really great conversation happening and it is fun to be a part of that. There is a lot of controversy as well, especially on GreenBuildingAdvisor.com Such as where does the law of diminishing returns kick in when it comes to insulating and how to handle latent loads (excess moisture). Plus there’s the whole U.S. vs the rest of the world thing which I won’t go into as I find it rather annoying, or at least boring. Secondly, It represents state of the art science on how to build good buildings with an overriding emphasis on simplicity and quality. Passive House is really all about quality and even, as I’m finding out, represents a necessary re-thinking of how to get something built. A much more collaborative approach is necessary than often happens when building even high-end projects. The process gets much less linear. I also like the idea that the Passive House approach is a valid part of the conversation, not just achieving certification and getting the plaque to hang beside the front door. I see projects being showcased that utilized the approach in a value engineering manner to get the most bang for the buck that simply don’t have the budget to go all the way and attain certification and I like the general consensus that that is okay.
Much of my own work had been trending in the PH direction anyway so it was good to undergo the intensive training so that I could make decisions with much more confidence and authority that comes with PH credentials. As an architect who was never very (ahem) enthusiastic about the numbers and physics of things and more into the airy-fairy poetic nature and scholarly aspect of architecture it was also helpful in terms of training my weaknesses. I call myself a Passive House designer rather than a consultant in part because If I were to attempt a full-on certified Passive House, I would want to hire someone more experienced who does this on a daily basis to do the actual numbers part and look over their shoulder through the process – at least for the first few times.
There is also the notion, similar to my approach to structural engineering where I try not to design anything too complicated to engineer myself – I prefer not to design anything that would require a complicated heating/ventilating system. It does get more complicated in renovation/addition work though for sure. My approach to structural engineering has always been very intuitive and very related to my own building experience and knowledge of materials, assemblies and connections My structural engineering professor once told me that the intuition part is vital and more than half the battle. First you intuit the solution then you apply numbers and formulas to check yourself. The Passive House training augmented my intuition and gave me more confidence to apply the numbers as well as a perspective on when, where and why.

Plus it was really good for marketing.

February 5, 2014
by bob
1 Comment

Houzz- Eric Reinholdt’s ideabooks

I’m becoming a fan of Eric Reinholdt’s Houzz ideabooks. His writing and editing is a cut above plus he has very similar tastes to my own so I look forward to each new ideabook. He also worked for one of my favorite firms in Maine – Elliot and Elliot Architecture.
His Houzz page is HERE

And here area few of his ideabooks:


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Browse top designers interior portfolios, from high-quality pots and pans and a decorative dinnerware set to ideas for remodeling bath and kitchen.

January 21, 2014
by bob
0 comments

Observations from Rachelle (my co-#1 fan)

Bob has been asking me for some time to write a guest blog entry and since he has happily been to busy of late to write much himself, I thought this was a good time to finally make good on my promise to do so.

Last year, I had a visit with an old friend who had recently moved back to the area. I hadn’t seen her for a while, and it was the first time I’d seen her new house since it was just a partially-erected timber frame. It was lovely to see my friend after such a long gap, and also fodder for pondering and a blog entry.

The house was nice—open, tasteful, bright and spacious (huge by our standards) and it fulfilled their goal of functioning as somewhat of a community gathering place as well as a home. For example, they were holding a weekly meditation group in a specially designed meditation/yoga area. But I couldn’t help thinking that if Bob had designed it, it could have met their needs so much more simply, elegantly and with much less square footage.

Of course I said nothing (how can you say something like that and what would be the point?) as I had said nothing during their design process. It seems rather self-serving to say to a friend who’s designing their own dream house, “you know, you should really consider hiring my husband.”

But what I learned next makes me question whether that was really the best approach. When somebody builds a house, you expect them to be excited, even jubilant with the result. Instead, my friend told me that she felt like she had PTSD. There wasn’t a single corner of the house she could look at without dredging up the stressful arguments with contractors over that bit of construction. She wished she could be rid of the house, but they were sunk in it for so much more than market value, that wasn’t an option.

The biggest mistake they had made was to get sweet-talked by the GC into inadequate planning and problem-solving. One thing Bob stresses to all his clients is how much easier it is and how much cheaper it is to work out problems on paper. My friend believed her charismatic contractor that they could figure it all out as they went. What she figured out is that it’s very expensive to pay for an entire crew to stand around and wait while hasty compromises are made.

I could go on, but you get the point. My friend’s unfortunate house-building experience is a classic example of why it pays to pay for someone good to be on your side. Of course, that’s no guarantee of satisfaction either, I suppose. I’m thinking of some clients who fired Bob a few years back after he showed them a rendering of what the addition floor plan they loved would look like in elevation. Not at all what they’d expected. You’d think they might have been appreciative to discover that after a few hours of design time rather than mid-construction. No accounting for people. It’s now once again been a while since I caught up with that friend. I hope she’s come to peace with her process by now, and that she’s enjoying her home. And if another friend embarks on the process of building a home? I wonder if I’ll serve them by being self-serving. I’ll probably just give them some generic advice about working all the kinks out that they can on paper, and leave it at that. After all, my friends all know I’m married to an architect.

December 11, 2013
by bob
1 Comment

Thinking ahead

HA! This happens a lot. I just got a call from a contractor who wanted to modify roof trim on an addition to make it both easier and he thought it would look better. Which it would except that a future phase of the project involves adding a porch in such a way that the frieze on the addition becomes the casing for the porch beam. The continuity was important to the client to calm that side of the building. In the image, the red over the window is where the contractor wanted to case the window with 1 x 4 thus creating a narrower frieze board. When that line got over to the porch on the left it would have to drop down to case in the porch beam. Not smooth. On the windows above, the casing for the windows is independent and below the frieze which is preferable, however, I was setting the three lower windows as high and large as I could over a countertop to maximize light into a deep room. We were squished also in terms of the roof in order to get it well under the upstairs windows. Especially over the porch area. The contractor’s solution would be fine and what I would have designed were it not for the open porch to the right.

I found, during the years I worked as a carpenter, that it was easy to concentrate on the task at hand and lose sight of the overall picture. As a designer, sometimes I’ll make a foundation more complicated in order to make framing or trim more simple. Or sometimes I’ll do things in a more complicated fashion due to an aesthetic historical precedent. (Isn’t much of traditional design like that?) Sometimes I will complicate things to make the end result look simple. Sometimes I complicated things just because I can be really really picky.

December 3, 2013
by bob
2 Comments

Recent Design Work

Then I looked at a larger barn with more “clipped” New England eaves. Need to work on the front windows. Traditional barns often utilized some asymmetry here but more modern barn builders seem to stick rigidly to symmetry. The side windows are not good however. -see last picture. Perhaps two large windows

Further work:

November 15, 2013
by bob
4 Comments

Photos! Stratton Modern is nearly complete

I visited a recent ski home project near Stratton mountain ski area to get some photos. The house is nearly complete. As usual there are things I would do differently next time and things that didn’t quite follow the drawings but that’s for me to know and no one else to notice. I really like the “presence” of this house. The coloring and materials are first rate. It is very “touchy feely” and very responsive to the changing light as the clouds raced across the sky. I can’t wait to do the local, green hemlock over Solitex Mento again. and better. Click on the photos for big screen enjoyment.


November 6, 2013
by bob
0 comments

not so deep energy retrofit

Here are some photos from a current project. The interior of the exterior walls are all gutted and exposed for new insulation and air sealing. We are not going for a deep energy retrofit here but the end result should cut the energy use significantly. This is an old house with various interventions over the years, some of which we are removing and some we are changing. This is an example of a project where I was hired to help out with some basic design services but every time I showed up on the job, more of the existing was removed and opened up. A moving target in terms of “scope of work”. At this point I am just trying to keep up with things on paper and am acting more as a consultant. I suspect when all is said and done, a lot of this isn’t going to end up on paper.


Old, very old and new framing

the Backside of the oldest fireplace now exposed.

Interesting eave detail -no rake overhang, the crown returns on the horizontal and there is a big ugly box to mount the gutter too

Front door and window detail on the main house

October 28, 2013
by bob
0 comments

Mass MoCA in Adams Massachusetts

We visited the Massachusetts Museum of Modern Art – Mass MoCA in North Adams MA today to see Xu Bing’s giant phoenix exhibit in the largest hall We come here several times a year and I usually walk around with my mouth wide open in amazement but this time I remembered to snap some photos. When I was in Architecture School, I would occasionally break into a gigantic old abandoned factory up the street from my apartment. At night, of course. It was relatively terrifying but also very peaceful. I remember lying on a parapet three stories up for half the night once just chilling out. The spaces, lit only by nearby streetlights, were beautiful. Mass MoCA is a large factory turned into a museum in such a way that much of that old factory architecture has not been lost or covered up or gentrified.

Xu Bing: Phoenix

The kids were floored

Sol Lewitt

The celestory – a lovely space where there never seems to be anybody.

note the airstream – it’s part of a Steam punk exhibit “Michael Oatman: all utopias fell” and you can climb up there and go in it

They let you into the old boiler building – unsupervised – I could cut myself on rusty metal! It’s actually an exhibit – “Stephen Vitiello: All Those Vanished Engines” complete with eerie sounds from hidden speakers that use some of the old empty rusting tanks as reverberation chambers.

Excellent detailing with raw steel – one of my favorite materials

A river runs through it.

The old building is not at all lost or buried as so often happens.

One of my favorite spaces at Mass MoCA is this tall narrow in-between space.

And the cafeteria actually has really good food and not too expensive – a toasted bagel was less than 1$

Well worth a day to visit. Also, drive (or ride your bike) to the top of Mt. Greylock nearby and check out the Clark which has some amazing art as well as a Tadeo Ando building.

October 22, 2013
by bob
0 comments

philosophy and process

Process is a moving target. It changes based upon so many variables, not the least of which is the client. Lately, I’ve been thinking about all my past work and how, to some extent each project represents where I was at that point in time but mostly, every project represents the client much more than myself in terms of philosophy, aesthetics, etc. Many decisions are made in every project that are, perhaps, guided be me but are not what I would have done if given Carte Blanche. I regret some of these decisions but it is important to remember that they were not my decisions any more than the project was “my project” If a project strays too far from what I want to be associated with, (it’s ugly) it doesn’t show up in my portfolio. There are plenty of those out there. Sometimes you see it coming and sometimes not. Every now and then you get a client who really wants to listen to what you have to say and is interested in your philosophy but mostly, you just have to sneak that in when nobody’s looking.

September 26, 2013
by bob
0 comments

Vote now for the Fern house (please)

http://www.finehomebuilding.com/item/31831/vote-for-your-favorite-outdoor-project

Please go to the link above and vote for the Fern House.
I’ve gotten myself into a battle on Fine Homebuilding’s website with three other finalists for a $100 gift certificate to the Taunton Store. All 4 will be published but at the moment, I am losing out to a “Cat Ranch”. How embarrassing. This from twitter:

So am pulling out the big guns and putting this on my blog where a few thousand of my followers will vote for the Fern House before Friday at noon.

Thanks,
Bob

September 12, 2013
by bob
1 Comment

If you want your house to breathe, give it a set of lungs.

I had another comment recently from a builder who wants to build a house that breathes. I started to reply in an email and then decided to put it hereon the blog instead.

What we are doing nowadays in the world of high performance homes is based on studying hundreds of thousands of houses built in the last half century that have failed (which includes the majority of 70′s and 80′s super-insulated and passive solar homes in the northeast) and applying those lessons to building a durable house nowadays. Houses from before that time period that failed for one reason or another are mostly gone and many of those that remain are simple piggy banks for big oil. We put our money in and the oil companies take it out. Simple. (usually, I like simple but…) For the past few decades, builders in the northeast have been living in a vacuum while the northern Europeans and Canadians paid much more attention to how houses fail, learning from them and adapting. Now the conversation is opening up again and we are taking a seat at the table.

I have lived in houses that breath my whole life. It sucks. Aside from the part where you have to give your money to someone else just to not freeze to death in the winter, there is the comfort aspect of things. Houses I have lived in have never been all that comfortable whether in terms of temperature or moisture levels or even wiping mildew off the window sills. Now, with two children, I worry about the air quality and mold issues inherent in my house that breathes. I would rather be able to seal up the house in the winter and be confident that I was breathing fresh Vermont air all the time than have to step outside for a breath of fresh air or open up the doors and windows if I screw up on getting the woodstove going. Six months out of the year, I would still have the choice to open the windows and turn off the HRV.

We do seem to have more summer moisture and humidity problems than we used to but we also have access to more durable and proven materials and building methods. Some builders and architects are taking advantage of this but most are building the same way they did 20 years ago despite all the failures. A house that breathes and has little or no insulation is a barn and If you want to heat it, that means coming to terms with giving your money away. Jesse Thompson says “People breath air through their lungs, not their skin. Why should houses be any different?” If you want your house to breathe, give it a set of lungs.

There are a range of options for doing this from exhaust only bathroom fans and range hoods (simple and cheap but where does the makeup air come from in a very tight house?) to a full-on Heat Recovery Ventilation System or HRV. These are also fairly simple and effective although significantly more expensive but have the added advantages of recovering much of the heat from the outgoing air as well as providing fresh incoming air exactly where you want it. For more information just type “HRV” or “house ventilation” into the search box on Green Building Advisor and start reading.

August 27, 2013
by bob
0 comments

Crickets, Firewood and Blackberries

Is there any more melancholy sound than crickets out in the field? Reminding me of what must become of this pile of wood…very soon.

Being a relatively not well-to-do architect, I live in a poorly insulated house that I heat with wood. I also do not have a tractor to move wood around. I have a little cart. no gas or electric log splitter. It’s good training for cross country skiing.

This time of year for me is a strange combination of nostalgia, worry and melancholia. The summer has been nice – I’ve mostly spent it working out in my barn rather than at the office where I’ll be when the weather really turns cooler. I’ve been eating massive amounts of blackberries.

The weather is wonderful. The sun is intense, the shadows cool and the birds are silent as they fatten up for their migrations. Fall definitely comes on August 1st nowadays. we swim very little in August. the water is getting too cold. I spend a lot of time out in my woods every day always walking the dog and often running trails. I am constantly stunned and amazed by the 49 acres we have here in Vermont. The sense of stewardship is powerful. When we moved here in 2000, one of the first things I did was create a network of trails. I need to be in the woods and on those trails nearly every day. Not just near the woods or looking at the woods or driving by woods but actually out there in the trees. It helps me think. Or not think. This sense of the land really influences my thinking about living and creating a home in the woods of New England. I am far from having a portfolio of work that really reflects my own personal philosophies and sensibilities. As an architect, I do work for other people and it has to reflect them more than me and I realize that few people can feel as passionate about the land as I do.