We live in a world of constant distractions.  We have hundreds of TV stations with a backlog of shows and movies saved on our DVR’s.  We have cell phones and text messaging, which create an expectation of being immediately available at all times.  We have the internet and YouTube, where every minute 24 hours of new content is uploaded.  Many of us check our email before we even get into the office, causing our focus to veer off in a myriad of directions.  Our smartphones are filled with apps that take our attention away from the world in front of us and constantly notify us with a beep or buzz that someone has emailed or text messaged us.

Paul Virilio has defined this condition as picnolepsy – similar to frequent epileptic fits, it is a condition of constant interruptions after which we are unaware of the time that we have lost.  For Virilio, this picnoleptic state is a symptom of an increase in speed at which content is consumed and the abolition of distances in time by various means of communication and telecommunications.

 I don’t mean for this to all sound negative.  I think it is incredible that I can take a picture of a framing connection with my iPad, bring the image into photoshop to clean it up, import the cleaned up version of the image into Sketchbook Pro where I can draw a sketch over or next to the image and write notes about whatever the issue is, email it to the structural engineer with a question and get an answer in (almost) real time.  And with the video conferencing capabilities on my iPhone, I can review a construction question/issue with a Builder from my desk, which truly has allowed us to effectively expand the territory in which we work.  Seriously, how did Frank Lloyd Wright get Fallingwater built without all this technology?

 When we describe our work, we like to talk about presence.  How the quality of construction and building materials evoke a physical presence.  How the various phenomena that is unique to a particular site interacts with the architecture.  How the relentless refinement of the design through our iterative process strips away inessential design details that distract from the perception of the architecture.  Just today, I have been thinking thru the difference between the way that light sculpts a round tuscan column versus the crisp transition on adjacent surfaces of a square column – for the project I am working on the square column works better.

 But we also can describe our work as allowing the occupants to be present in their lives and escape Virilio’s picnoleptic state.  At it’s best, great architecture has atmospheric qualities that allows for reflection and contemplation. 

 In residential architecture, this might mean a quiet space where you can enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning and experience the way that the light grazes a beautifully textured stone wall.  Or a space with great cross-ventilation where the smell and feel of the spring air causes your thoughts to be present in your environment.  Or a covered terrace where you can hear the rain falling on a copper roof.

MT_Ercklentz_02Have a great spring! 


Determining the Potential of your House

We meet a lot of potential clients who have been thinking about their houses for a long time.  Some are organized with lists and images, others less so.  But, the realization for us is that although we typically think the start of a project is when we go to look at the house, talk about the spaces and design potential – essentially the “interview”, the beginning of the design process is much earlier from the homeowner’s perspective.  Most homeowner’s have been thinking about adding, renovating, or knocking-down since before they purchased the property.  Let’s face it; it is fun to think about.

What is not so fun is when we find out that the project that the homeowner has spent so much time and mental energy thinking about is one that is not allowed under local zoning ordinances, or is impractical from a construction or budgetary point of view.  So, we thought we would write this article to give a roadmap of sorts on what we feel is an intelligent way, with practical advice, to start thinking about the potential your house offers.

First the fun part

The Image Library

One of the best ways to hone in on what you like and don’t like is to start an image library.  We suggest two types; a physical file and a digital file.  For the physical file, you can use a 3-ring binder, a file system in a file drawer, etc. - basically a physical mechanism for capturing ideas.  For the digital file, you want the same thing, just located on your computer.

For the physical image library, I would suggest organizing it into groups.  Some files can be for practical images such as decorative light fixtures or bathroom faucets that you like.  Other files can be more conceptual – I have a file of images that show different ways that light construction relates to heavy construction in ways that I find interesting.  One file type that I would recommend is a file just dedicated to images that convey a certain feeling – not something in particular in the image that you like or dislike, but images that just feel right/good to you.  These images typically come from torn out pages in magazines, newspapers, photographs (nothing wrong with taking a quick snapshot of a stone wall you like – I do), etc.

The digital files can be organized in a similar way, but these images will be captured from the internet, digital photographs, scans, etc.   There are a few online resources that are great to look thru.  Houzz.com and Pinterest.com are both image banks to go thru and are organized by theme, location, etc.  So, if you want to look at dining rooms, you can look at hundreds of them from portfolios of design professionals all over the world.  On houzz.com you can even ask questions of the designers and oftentimes get answers either from the designer directly, or from some other knowledgeable person.  So, if you really like a showerhead in a bathroom you see, just post a question and most likely someone will know and give you the answer.  We use both platforms, but we have found that Pinterest is a little better in that you can create and share a private pinterest board that only you and I can see.  On some projects, I have many private boards so that we can stockpile case-study images of each room, for example.  You may be able to do the same thing on Houzz - I just haven't had the experience that I have had on Pinterest.

One word of caution when putting together the image libraries - it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you can pull a bunch of images and identify things in each image that you like and then magically they will go together to form the perfect space.  So, even if you like this floor, and that wall treatment, and this cabinet with that countertop, and don’t you just love this light fixture . . .the likelihood of simply putting them all together to make a successful space is low in our experience.  It just doesn’t work that way.  It would be kind of like saying that because each ingredient in my pantry tastes good, I can just mix them all together and make something great.

Instead, I like to think of the image library as a dart board where you can never actually see or explain the bulls eye, but the more darts you throw and surround it, the closer you can come to getting to the core of what you want in a potential project.

The Wish List

It is also important to define your goals and wish list.  And try to get as granular as possible, so instead of just thinking, we need a new family room, try to think about how you want it furnished, how formal/informal you would like it to be, adjacency and site lines (want to be able to see the fireplace from the kitchen?), how open you would like it to the kitchen, relationship to outdoor spaces, types of lighting, etc, etc, etc.

The Constraints

It is also important to know the zoning and building constraints of your particular property.  Locating a site survey of your property and determining the site setbacks help you not to waste time and energy thinking about this fantastic master suite that juts out 30 feet off your house, when you are only allowed to go out 10 feet by the local zoning ordinances.  Knowing the height restrictions and how they are calculated will let you know the feasibility of raising the roof to convert the attic into a finished space.   Are there wetlands on the property and how do they affect a potential project? 

How do you do this?  Well, first you need to gather the data on your house and site.  Obtain your survey, and/or go to the Building Department to see if they have any old drawings or surveys on file.  Then, you need to do some investigation into the local Zoning Ordinances and see how they apply to your property.  At a minimum you will want to know what zone your are in, the size of your property, the setbacks, height restrictions and any lot coverage limits.  Then, you want to stop into the Wetlands department and see if they have any information on your property.  Here in Greenwich, they will look at their Wetlands map to see if your property has wetlands or not.  If your house has a septic system, you will also need to review what the Health Department has on file.  I know, it's a lot of work.  Don’t want to do the legwork?  Give us a call we are happy to help. 

What to do next

So, you want to take your potential project to the next step, but are not sure about totally committing to doing a project for whatever reason (timing, budget concerns, etc).  Then it might be a good idea to hire an architect to do a Feasibility Study.  This will typically include some or all of the following:

Pre-Design Work

-Measure the existing house and draw it in CAD

-Obtain the current site survey

-Firm up the site constraints and identify any critical issues that might affect the project.

-Review image library, project goals, wish list, budgetary goals, current construction costs, design and construction schedules, etc.

Schematic Design Work

-Develop preliminary design diagrams

-Draw loose (hand drawn) schematic plans and elevations that show what the project might look like.

-Define an opinion of probable construction costs.

Once these pieces are in place, we have defined your goals and wish list, we have identified the site constraints, we have a clear sense of what the project might look like and feel like, and we have an idea of what it might cost and how long the design and construction process might take, you will be in a great position to decide whether or not to pull the trigger on a project, or possibly look for a new house, or just stay put.  And if you decide to move forward with the project, you will do so armed with solid information that will remove the fear typically associated with a construction project and be able to have fun through the design process.

UPDATE:  We have written a follow up post relating to this article - Avoid these 4 Mistakes when Collecting Case-Study Images.  Check it out.


Inspiration: Alexander Creswell

Of all the books in our office, the one that stands directly in front of my desk, the only one in constant view all day, every day is a small pamphlet of watercolors by Alexander Creswell.  Truely amazing.  If you enjoy great watercolor painting, pick up a copy.

On a quick search of Mr. Creswell online, I stumbled across this video and thought it interesting enough to share.  Enjoy.

The cupola

Cupolas. . . cupolas. . . cupolas.  That medieval innovation that served to admit natural light, provide ventilation and gives and extra dimension & articulation to the interior of many dome structures throughout the world.  In this blog post we will look at the use and misuse of the cupola in today’s architectural landscape that has grown more and more prevalent throughout New England.

 So, how did we get from the cupola being a beautiful urban masterpiece - defining the skyline of a city like Florence.  From this;


 To this? 


 In residential architecture, it seems that the cupola became popular in New England during the 1800’s Victorian houses(including Queen Anne, Shingle Style and Stick Style houses).  Frequently the cupola took the form of a tower or turret on one side of the building – architect’s in these styles, in their quest for a picturesque forms, were not partial to symmetry.  In rural architecture, the cupola was a great way to ventilate dairy barns – they drew in hot, smelly air and ventilated it up and out of the barn.  This also served to keep the inside of the barn cool and dry which was especially important where hay was stored since moisture can render hay combustible.

 In today’s house, we feel that the cupola is typically designed poorly, with poor proportions and details, and is overused as a purely ornamental design feature.  This is not to say that all cupolas designed/used today are poor, just the vast majority of them.  Here are a couple of bullet points to illustrate what we think makes up a proper cupola;

  • Does the cupola actually have a function?  Or does it just sit on top of the roof?  As you can see from the interior of this cupola on a house in Vermont, it functions to admit light into the space and filter down into the space through the beautiful heavy-timber post & beam details.
  • Is there a reason to have the cupola to begin with?  In this project of ours that included a cupola, we used it to help articulate the centerline that organized the architecture and the landscape.  This centerline thru the cupola, the center of the barn doors, across the centerline of the swimming pools, cutting thru the center of a symmetrically organized garden space and terminating on a sculpture in a reflecting pond helps to tie the architecture to the surrounding landscape.   
  • How is the cupola composed with the other architectural elements?  Again, from the same project, instead of just plopping a cupola onto a roof, we detailed the cupola to integrate into the roof form, by sweeping up the lead-coated copper roof surface to form the base of the cupola.  This ties the cupola to structure both visually and structurally. 
Profile page
  • How is the cupola detailed and are the proper proportions used?  In designing a cupola, one has to remember that it is up at the highest point of the ridge and will be typically viewed from the ground.  It is a smaller element than the roof, so typically the moulding proportions need to be adjusted accordingly, but the overall form of the cupola needs to be slightly elongated so that it does not look too squat.  
  • Finally, one pet peeve of ours.  As above, when the cupola is in place, it is looked at from the ground.  Therefore, architects, please stop designing cupola’s with too shallow a roof pitch.  Listen, we get it . . .on the drawing it looks better to match the roof pitch of the roof that it is sitting on.  But, in reality, this typically results in a wafer like roof on the top of the cupola simply because of the viewing angle.  In the example from our project above (the poolhouse), we used a 14/12 roof pitch (meaning 14” vertically for every 12” horizontally), while the roof it is sitting on is only a 10/12.  We have taken the liberty, via photoshop of showing what this would look like if we matched the same 10/12 roof pitch. 
Photoshoped cupola

As our examples may show, we have only really done one project where we felt a cupola would add to the project.  But we are always looking for our second; so if you know someone that may benefit from a beautifully designed cupola (or anything else for that matter), have them give us a call.  

Thinking about improving your current home, or building new?  Get started organizing your thoughts with the Unique Project Blueprint™.  Click the button below.

Product Spotlight: Natural Cut Wood Flooring

File this under, “things to keep an eye on.” 


Bolefloor is a natural, curved-edge wood floor system.  The company uses scanners to identify the “natural edge” of the boards and detects imperfections such as knots and sapwood near the edges or ends of the boards.  The wood is cut along these natural seams making each floorboard as unique and individual as the tree it came from.  Looks expensive to me, but according to the website it is not much more expensive than a traditionally cut floorboard.  We’ll see.

 They are currently looking for distribution partners in the US and Canada.  We will certainly keep our eye out to find when it is available in our area.

Modern Powder Room

When designing a home there are literally thousands of decisions that need to be made.  Here is a simple, clean modern powder room image for a project we recently completed in Southport, CT along with some of the products that were selected.

Powder Room 

Floor Tile:      2" x 2" Tumbled Lagos Azul limestone with gray grout (don't remember which color grout was selected - we had several samples made in the field and we basically pointed at the one we liked).  We chose a fairly tight grout joint for this tile to stay in proportion with the tile size.

Wall Tile:       Ann Sacks "Crystal Glossy" glass tile with a white grout.  We used 4"x4" as well as 1/2" x 2" tile and designed the pattern.  This tile was installed on one wall of the powder room behind the sink & toilet.

Sink:             Waterworks "Exeter" pedestal sink #EXPL47, white.

Faucet:         Lacava "Cigno" #1583 deck mounted, three-hole faucet, polished chrome.

Towel Bar:    Vola #T19, 600mm towel bar, polished chrome.

Sconce:        Vistosi "Lio" thin wall sconce.

Mirror Frame:  This beautiful industrial steel frame with exposed welds, stainless steel screw heads and grind-marks we found at a local frame shop (J Pocker, Westport CT) and had them make it into a mirror

Not seen:  A simple Toto toilet and a beautiful antique steel Pharmacy cabinet (gotta have somewhere to put the extra toilet paper when you use a pedestal sink - may as well be beautiful).


The importance of Design Development

In driving around Fairfield County, nothing seems to aggravate us more than a poorly designed house.  Putting aside (for the moment) the obvious candidate, the McMansion (or spec house) – this blog post will focus on a number of poorly designed houses designed by architects.  We’re not talking about houses designed by some young architect working out of their garage, but popular architects, doing prominent and expensive work around Fairfield County, that seem to obtain work simply because their work is viewed by the public as “good” because it is prominent and expensive.  Well, it’s not.

One of the common characteristics that we notice in these houses is an incredible lack of restraint.  It seems to us that these architects think of residential architecture as a checklist of architectural elements and products.  Stair tower (check), stone base (check), Subzero (check), copper finial (check), etc, etc, etc.  Further, it looks as though they feel that the more items that you can check off the list, the better the house.  How else to explain the overuse of the cupola in today’s residential landscape?  Nothing against cupola’s, they are great in the appropriate setting.  But really, they cannot all be appropriate settings. 

 How is this “more-is-more” design mentality produced?  Here is what we suspect.

 In the beginning of the design process, the architect and/or client bring together images (whether physical images ripped out of magazines, or mental images) of what they would like in their house.  There is an image of a kitchen that they like, one with a beautiful antique floor, a light fixture they love, and another with elegantly profiled brackets, etc.  – the thought being that putting all of the elements that the owner loves together will make a successful house for that particular owner.  The more stuff that the owner loves, the more the owner will love the house.  But this is akin to thinking that, because each individual ingredient in my pantry tastes good, simply putting them all together will create a successful dish – and the more the better.

 Secondly, we suspect that the Architect don’t really value, or know how to do, design development.  Our guess is that these designers, go straight from initial design concept (schematic design) into construction drawings without taking the time to test design ideas and refine the project.  It is not a coincidence that many of these same houses have forms and rooflines that clumsily crash into each other.  This is not only a pet peeve of ours, but a sign that care was not taken in design development to resolve these design issues.  Granted, it can sometimes be an arduous process.  It is oftentimes difficult to resolve interior spaces with a well balenced, composed exterior.  It takes time and a dedication to hone the design until a graceful solution is found.  Since the design process can be sped up be neglecting design development, this seems like a win-win for the owner (who gets their house designed quicker) and the architect (who can push a project quickly thru the design stages). 

 But, the design development phase of the project is, for us, one of the more important of all of the phases.  For us, quality residential architecture is born from a design process that is less about addition of more-and-more, but one of subtraction - an iterative process of editing and refinement.  We feel the proper balance and composition of architectural elements is more important than their quantity.  In the long run, you will be happier with the results.

Taking credit for other's work

The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.  Albert Einstein

Yesterday, I saw a project of ours published on the internet.  Not in a magazine, or referred to in a blog.  Not on a landscape architect's website, or on the General Contractor's website.  But on another Architect's website!

Let's backtrack.  A year or so ago, I interviewed for a new house on a wonderful street in Fairfield, Connecticut.  I did not get the commission for the project and, although disappointed, did not think much more about it.  This summer, I was driving by the property and noticed a particular architect's sign in the front yard.  Although I made a mental note who was awarded the project, again, I did not think much more about it.  Yesterday, I got curious about the project and took a look at the architect's website to see if there were any images of the house and poolhouse.  Well, it was not up on this architect's website yet, but we were shocked to find an image of one of OUR projects in his portfolio.  Unbelievable.

And there is no ambiguity here.  There can be no mistake.  Our work (as well as the work of the very talented landscape architect) in his portfolio as if he had anything to do with the project - he didn't.  The irony is that he might have gotten the new house project, in some small part, by showing the prospective client our work.  Wow.  It will be interesting to see how this phone call goes.

Inspirational House: Kragsyde

Our design process is one that uses a rigorous and studied approach.  We always have our radar out for new projects and new ideas as well as frequently studying houses that we find significant.  So, we thought that a series of blog posts on Inspirational Houses would be an interesting endeavor and allow us to organize our ideas about architecture that we feel is significant to our work.  Identifying case studies to blog about is an easy task.  They are pages from our design library tagged with multiple post-it notes, dog-eared repeatedly and have been scanned, printed and copied for many project files.  This is certainly true of our first Inspirational House, “Kragsyde” in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Ma.

Kragsyde elev low res

Designed by Peabody and Sterns in 1884 as a summer house for Bostonian George Nixon Black, Jr.  Kragsyde is a remarkable example of American Shingle Style homes of New England.  Unlike Colonial homes of the time, the asymmetrical and varied forms of the shingle style, as exemplified here, echoed and complimented the conditions of the specific landscape.  Kragsyde is set into the wooded, craggy heights overlooking the Atlantic just North of Boston.  The house is built up from a masonry base made of local stone and the natural wood shingle sheathed forms are brought together into one swelling volumetric shape that produces an incredibly strong relationship to its site.

As with great shingle style houses, there is a “plasticity” in the forms of the house that are articulated by wrapping the entire structure in shingle.  Trim details are virtually non-existent (as compared to it’s Colonial counterparts) so as to not interrupt the shingled envelope.  Because of Kragsyde’s size, shape and asymmetry, it cannot be understood from a single static viewpoint.  The plasticity and varied forms need to be experienced by moving around and through the structure.  As opposed to a Colonial house, for example, where you can “make sense” of the house by looking at the front facade, the shingle style house provides a multitude of views - any one view does not give the viewer/user the whole “experience” of the house.

Kragsyde plan low res

A look at the floor plan shows a “V” shaped plan with the broadest face facing the ocean.  This not only maximized the beautiful view, but also captured cool sea breezes with in the house and the many outdoor piazzas that attached to each of the main rooms of the house.

Finally, the (easily) most recognizable feature of the house is the shingled arched porte-cochere.  This beautifully detailed archway, is the focal point of the house as you drive up the entry drive, and once through has a direct view of the water.  This impact of departure and arrival to the house is articulated beautifully with the architecture as it celebrates the cadence of summer life in a summer home.

Unfortunately, Kragsyde was destroyed soon after the owner passed away in 1929.

Branding and Architecture

Recently, we have been thinking a lot about branding as it relates to architecture.  Branding, in this case relates to the expression of an identity – where experience itself has become as much of the “product” as the physical object.  The iPod is one of the best examples of a product that illustrates its value as a branded commodity.  The iPod produces not only use value through its primary function (listening to music) and its value as a means of representation (wearing an iPod), but also its experiential value (being part of an iPod lifestyle).  Thus the object enhances the perceived value of its user by endowing him/her with a particular identity and by triggering a particular brand experience – enhancing the status of the product’s user.  

For architecture, designing for experience requires connecting architecture to a user’s personal dreams and desires.  Unlike function and program, an experience can never be fully controlled – it can only be triggered.  It must elicit relevant emotional experiences at different points of contact with its users by creating an architectural presence that is felt, as well as seen.  This idea is exemplified by the thermal bath in Vals, Switzerland by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor.  The design was motivated by the desire to capture the primal act of bathing in a setting that references the surrounding mountainous environment.  Organized as a series of thick cubic volumes that allude to large quarry stones, the building provides a succession of distinct experiences that include hot and cold baths, saunas and steamrooms, as well as spaces for contemplating the surrounding mountain site.  The space between these massive volumes of stone is filled with water that allows the visitor to swim to different areas of the bath.  Unlike typical spas, Zumthor focuses on creating spiritual ambience based on a play of rough and smooth surfaces, contrasts in darkness and light, on reflections on the water and in the steam-saturated air, and on the unique acoustics of bubbling water in a world of stone.  Although the physical form of the baths in Vals is one of ascetic aesthetic of quietude and restraint, both in its orthogonal organization and its pronounced focus on materiality, it is in the experience of the place that the architecture responds to user’s need for tranquility and authenticity.



In residential architecture in particular, good architecture is recognized as a medium to create an identity for people, communities and places.  The home is frequently the most important investment in people’s lives – not only as a financial investment, but an emotional investment that provides a platform for people to live their lives.  Like the baths in Vals, a good house has a presence – that quality that most people cannot articulate, but “know when they see/experience it”.  This experiential presence is one of the defining distinctions between a well-designed house and a typical suburban “spec” house.  The typical spec house design is one that defines the building as a commodity - a sum, or receipt.  A checklist of elements/products . . .subzero, check . . .limestone tile, check . . .beadboard wainscot, check . . .etc.  As long as the spec house includes those products on the checklist and has a sufficient amount of square feet, the spec house builder can calculate the potential profit on a project.  The result though is one of generic design quality, (typically) oversized proportions, and poor execution.

The well designed home, on the other hand, has a value not only through its use and function, but also through the experience that it elicits in the inhabitants.  Great residential architecture, like a great brand, looks good as a physical object with great proportions, refined detailing, and beautiful materials, but also in its presence that triggers discoveries and desires, prompts memories and elicits transformative experiences in those that engage it.  

For a more comprehensive view of Branding and the Experience Economy, we would suggest the following,  

Brandscapes, Architecture I the Experience Economy by Anna Klingmann.  

The Experience Economy by Joseph Pine II and James Gilmore.  

Experiential Marketing by Bernd Schmitt


The eye's of a project

Imagine this scenario:  you’ve worked long and hard with a bright, talented Architect to produce a beautiful set of plans and specifications for your new home.  You have gone thru the process of figuring out your likes and dislikes, the organization and arrangement of programmatic elements, the refinement of proportions and details, etc.  You have successfully made your way thru the town municipal departments and have undertaken the careful selection process of contractor selection.  Your ready for all of this hard work to become manifest in something physical, that you can see and touch and move thru.  So what is the next logical step?  Can you conceive of handing a blank check to your contractor and saying, “See you when it’s finished!”

Intuitively, every construction project, regardless of the size, requires a set of eyes to observe its progress.  This precaution does not necessarily denote a lack of trust in the contractor.  However, it is a way to stay ahead of misunderstandings, misread information, overlooked design considerations and a variety of other unforeseen situations that are guaranteed to come up during the course of construction.  Since every successful project is a result of a team effort, here is a list of “the eyes” on a typical high-end residential project.


Supervision is the day-to-day direction of the means and methods used on the construction site to build the project.  This is the sole responsibility of the contractor.  The site supervisor directs and coordinates the subcontractors and tradesmen and answers their day-to-day questions.  They are responsible for site safety measures and procedures and they ensure that everyone follows them on the job site.  The site supervisor is the key point of contact with the Architect and the Owner as they are in the unique position of knowing everything that is happening on the project.


The management of the project involves all of the back office work of the contractor.  Developing and maintaining the project schedule, ordering materials, paying subcontractors, and generating the proper project paperwork (payment requisitions, change orders, etc).  In a mid to large company, a dedicated office staff manages the project in order to allow the project supervisor to focus all of their attention on supervision.  In a small company, it is common that the project supervisor also does the project management duties.  Regardless, both the project supervision and the project management are equally critical to the success of the project.


Before building your project, you will have to obtain a building permit.  At the end of construction you will have to get a “Certificate of Occupation” allowing you to occupy the house and effectively closing out your building permit.  In order to obtain this “CofO” you will need a series of inspections by the town-building inspector.  These periodic inspections are scheduled by the contractor and are performed by the building inspector for conformance to code conditions.  Generally, building inspectors are conscientious and knowledgeable and perform a real service to Owners, protecting them from the most severe construction deficiencies.  But, keep in mind, that the building inspector is only concerned with minimum code compliance and are only looking at specific things for each inspection.  Building inspectors are not there to review quality or workmanship and do not ensure that the contractor is building per the drawings and specifications, except as it relates to code issues.


This is what your Architect can do for you during the course of construction.  Observation involves the periodic checking in at the jobsite to ensure that the project is following the design intent and quality standards that are defined by the drawings and specifications of the project.  The Architect also answers the many questions from the contractor to help them interpret the drawings correctly.  Construction Observation is a critical component of the Architect’s services in that it helps avoid missteps and inevitable unknown field conditions that crop up on every project.  The Architect also reviews the paperwork from the Contractor such as payment requisitions and change orders.  But, the Architect’s Observation differs from “inspection” or “supervision” because those terms carry legal definitions that significantly exceed the Architect’s actual role and responsibility.  Because there is a requirement for an inspector to know all of what is going on at the jobsite (that every nail being driven is the correct size and type, that they are driven exactly according to the specifications, etc.) it is not possible for the Architect to certify that the work is in complete accordance with the plans and specifications.


This is the role of the Owner.  After all, it’s your money and your home.  The Owner needs to make sure that all of the people who are critical to the success of the project are carrying out their responsibilities and working to protect your interests and investment.  Timely decisions that need to be made and prompt payment to the various project team members are critical to staying on schedule.

It takes a team effort to keep eyes on the job and ensure the success of a project.  The lack of any of the team members listed above is a detriment to the project and frequently results in scheduling problems, workmanship and quality issues, budget overruns, etc.  Successful projects are the result of all of the eyes working together to identify problems and work thru solutions before they become big problems.  This collaboration is the key ingredient to a projects success.


Great Space

The recently opened Brant Foundation Art Study Center is situated in a pastoral setting within a beautiful estate in Greenwich, Connecticut. Richard Gluckman transformed the original stone barn, built in 1902 as a cold storage facility for local orchards, into an art viewing space with three galleries with varying spatial characteristics, influenced by the requirements of the collection, and a video viewing room.  Gluckman's intervention within the historic structure keeps distinct the original structure from the inserted galleries emphasizing material contrasts.  Of particular note is the 88 foot skylight installed over a web of wood trusses that not only lightens the roof structure but affects how the light enters the space through the filigree of natural wood - in contrast to the solid white plaster walls of the galleries.  Great Space.


What is your "look"?

While interviewing, I often get asked this question.  Does your office have a “look” or “style”?  While a fairly superficial, pedestrian answer would probably suffice in this situation such as, “we do shingle style houses with large sweeping overhangs that frequently enclose outdoor spaces”, this has never sat right with us.  Not only do we not have a particular “style” or “look” that characterizes our work, but I feel that there is a deeper connection that a potential client is trying to make to our work.

In his treatise De Architectura, Vitruvius wrote that well built architecture has three conditions:  firmness, commodity and delight.

  • Firmness - Architecture requires firmness in its physical construction and thus stands in relation to science.  Thrust and balance, pressure and support, material characteristics and physical limitations are the root of the language that Architecture employs.
  • Commodity - Architecture must satisfy an  external need and is thus subservient to the general use of mankind.  In this way Architecture is an expression of human needs and thus can be judged by the success with which they supply practical ends that they are designed to meet.
  • Delight - This, I feel is the center of the question of our “look” or “style” for delight is not interested in functional solutions to a clients needs or the houses mechanical/physical solutions of shelter, but the disinterested desire for beauty–a purely aesthetic impulse by virtue of which architecture becomes art.

So while it is important that our houses function well for their owners and that they are well built, an answer about the way that our firm includes a waterproofing detail on the top of the concrete footing in order to reduce the amount of moisture that can draw up into the foundation wall and thus reduce the amount of moisture in a basement space, for example, misses the point.  But so too does a description of forms or stylistic details that may be common to the houses we have designed.

What I feel characterizes our work really comes down to presence.  So while our houses may vary greatly in “style” or “look” from one another (due to the fact that we employ a collaborative approach with our clients, thus each house is greatly influenced by their lifestyles), the common idea is that our houses have a presence about them.  They may not be the house on the street that is screaming the loudest for attention, but they have an unmistakable presence.  Presence is that quality that is hard to define,  but that most people know when they see it.  Presence is the balanced use of beautiful materials and forms.  Presence is the execution of graceful proportions and refined detailing.  Presence is the relationship of the architecture to the landscape and the quality of light entering well articulated spaces.  Presence is the rigorous precision that exceeds most current design and construction tolerances and makes the architecture sing.  To bring this back to Vitruvius, presence, to us, is where the three separate conditions of firmness, commodity and delight blend into a singular work that expands the life of those who live with it.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown

I can’t tell you how many times I have walked into a new spec house to find incorrect, or poorly designed mouldings.  For some reason, many spec builders tend to think that a massive, built-up crown moulding will impress a potential home buyer driven by the “more is better” school of thought - overlooking the poor proportions or an unusual composition of mouldings.  So I thought a short primer on mouldings might make a nice blog post.

The origin of mouldings lie in the desire to artistically refine the elements of construction (cornices, posts, beams, etc.) and to articulate their connection.  This artistic refinement is enhanced through the way light and shade articulates a mouldings profile.  The choice and sequence of moulding profiles establishes the classical grammar of mouldings.  A grammar is an intellectual set of conventions that is sometimes trumped by visual composition, but even a rudimentary knowledge of these conventions can lead to beautifully detailed trimwork.

In classical work, a seemingly infinite combination of mouldings can be organized into four groups.

Terminating mouldings:  profiles whose final curve is concave (the final movement is outward).
Supporting mouldings:  profiles whose final curve is convex (the final movement is upward).
Separating mouldings:  profiles such as the concave scotia or convex bead.

Translating mouldings:  a terminating moulding turned upside down in order to mediate between offsets in vertical planes (such as baseboards).

Moulding profiles002  

From this simple classification, one can to understand the logic of why a terminating moulding is best suited for the top of a built-up cornice, for example.  The thin tip of the concave profile of a terminating moulding is not visually able to hold much weight while the convex supporting moulding profile is (and is thus more appropriate farther down a built-up crown assembly).  Further, the concave curve at the edge of a terminating moulding concentrates a sharp shadow line right at the top edge - giving a crisp punctuation, while the convex profile makes the shadow more diffuse.

Understanding a few simple conventions (along with some thought on proportion, scale, light/shadow, etc) can elevate the design of traditional mouldings and would avoid the poorly designed, hasitly installed, upside down crown assembly that I witnessed this morning.

For an in depth study of mouldings, see C. Howard Walker’s seminal text, Theory of Mouldings.

Cash for Residential Clunkers

As much as I have been saying that now is a great time to build (availability of contractors & trades people, competitive pricing, etc), a little research into the tax code has served to reinforce my sentiments.  At both the federal and state level, a number of tax incentives and credits for energy efficient upgrades to existing homes have been put in place.  While there are a few tax incentives for new construction, the majority of tax credits are in place for residential remodels.

At the Federal level, many home improvements for a principal residence that are “placed in service” in 2009 and 2010 may qualify for tax credits.  In addition to more sophisticated energy efficient HVAC systems (such as geothermal, solar, fuel cell, photovoltaics, etc.), high-efficiency water boilers and furnaces qualify for a tax credit of 30% of the cost up to $1500.  In addition to HVAC systems, certain roofing systems, windows & doors and insulation also qualify for federal tax credits.  Please consult your tax professional to review various caps on credits and how they work.

The State level also offers tax incentives for energy efficient residential remodels.  For a state-by-state breakdown of various tax incentives, please see the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiencies .  Homeowners in Connecticut, for example can tap into tax incentives that eliminate 100% of the sales and use tax for qualifying energy efficient products such as;

  • equipment insulation, duct-air sealing and building insulation.
  • water heaters, furnaces, boilers and programmable thermostats.
  • windows / doors and caulking / weatherstripping.

So if you are planning on building, or have built an addition/alteration to your home in 2009/2010 consult your tax professional to review the possible tax incentives available to you.

Testing. . .Testing. . .One. . .Two. . .

So often is the virgin sheet of paper more real than what one has to say, and so often one regrets having marred it.

Harold Acton, Memoirs of an Aesthete, 1948

Sitting down to a blank sheet of paper to begin to draw is one of the more awkward moments in the design process.  Once the first mark is drawn, there is something to evaluate, something to build on, something to edit.  But before that first mark is drawn, the paper just stares at you in its white purity.  

So too with this blog.  

For this inaugural blog post, I will just begin by saying that I am one of two Principals of a small boutique architecture firm in Greenwich, Connecticut.  My partner and I started our practice, Mockler Taylor Architects, LLC, in 1999 and have been designing high-end residential work in the Northeast (mostly) for over 30 years (combined).  We decided to start this blog to articulate some of our thoughts on architecture and design – specifically high-end residential work.  Sometimes we will post on general design topics, sometimes on specific details, sometimes about the practice of architecture. . .we will see where this discussion leads us.

So, now that I have marred the virtual paper of this blog, here we go.