Published in crosscut.com Feb. 24, 2009
What happens when an architecture critic designs a house? It’s not quite the same as if a music critic were to attempt the “Emperor” Concerto, or a restaurant critic commandeer Canlis’s kitchen for the night. Those events would be ephemeral, hustled quickly into past tense if not quite forgotten. I’m living in this house for the rest of my life.
I’ve nourished a passion for architecture for the last three decades, writing regularly on it for national magazines and newspapers, including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for the past four years. I studied architecture history in grad school, but took no hands-on design courses; I never craved to actually practice architecture. This was wise. When I built my sailboat, I noticed that I have an almost immaculate inability to visualize three-dimensional objects from two-dimensional plans. The boat works, but only because I built most of it twice. I have to see something in three dimensions to understand why it doesn’t work, then take it apart and do it over again. This is what I do as architecture critic, just omitting the do-over part.
My wife Patty and I began prospecting for Whidbey Island land a couple of years ago. We’ve always wanted to commission an architect-designed house, but every time we got close, financial reality intervened. This time, an architect friend from our years in Arizona made a stunningly generous offer: he’d do the conceptual design for the cost of a plane ride to see the site. Then we could have a local architect develop working drawings at relatively modest cost.
Did I mention reality? I interviewed architects and contractors in the neighborhood, and what I kept hearing was: minimum $250 per square foot, and that’s with Ikea cabinets. Tom Kundig, one of Seattle’s most respected residential architects, recently told me $350 would be more realistic. At the $250 level, a 1600-square-foot house on a $200,000 lot would have totaled $600,000. At that we were well over our budget—we weren’t shopping for a wink-o-matic loan—even without site prep, landscaping, or the inevitable contingencies. Sadly, we shelved our good friend’s offer.
Why should custom building cost so outrageously? There’s a panoply of underlying issues, but at bottom is the nature of the homebuilding business. Contractors are not artists who thrive on innovation and challenge; they’re tradespeople who want to get the job done and roll rapidly on to the next one. They hate tackling anything they haven’t done before, so if they have to do it, they build in a hefty nuisance surcharge. Modern architecture is a nuisance.
We found a developer-owned lot we liked, and the builder already had an approved plan for a 1,975-square-foot house that he’d build for substantially less than that theoretical 1,600-footer. It was a conventional Northwest rambler tricked out with ridiculous neo-Craftsman detailing, but it looked like something I could work with. We made a deal: I would redesign it over the existing footprint, then take it back to the original architect for a reality check and new working drawings.
I bought a T-square and architect’s scale and cleared the dining table. Most architects haven’t drawn on paper for decades, but I wasn’t about to entangle my life in learning CAD (computer-aided design). Over a week that encrusted the floor with a sedimentary layer of eraser crumbs, I stripped the Craftsman clutter off the elevation and added a few contemporary details such as a frameless triangular clerestory, trying to reposition the house somewhere nearer the 21st century. I revised the floor plan to mesh with the life we envisioned. Everything seemed to work, but I couldn’t dismiss the lesson of the sailboat: We wouldn’t really know until the house appeared.
The architect who’d drawn the original plan was unlike any I’ve dealt with in my writing about architecture: he had pictures of Jesus in his office, but none of buildings. Still, he went to work on my plans with a professional attitude and demonstrated adept problem-solving. He easily untangled a circulation mess I’d created between bath and bedroom, and probably saved us a thousand dollars through the simple expedient of lowering roof pitch. I had slashed and burned frippery to cut costs, but missed the obvious.
The house arose last spring as we camped in a nearby rental to monitor progress. There came the usual array of surprises, each inevitably ringing up some addition to the bill. I was happily surprised by the builder’s care with quality and detail. The miters on the door and window frames were more accurate than the painstaking joinery I’d committed on my sailboat.
A week after we moved in, my amateur design errors were brutally obvious. Most were errors of dimension, my failure to accurately envision the functionality, or the feeling, of a space as I drew it on paper. We need 25 percent more window in the east wall of the great room for morning light. The guest bathroom is a foot too narrow. The entry hall is a foot too high. After complaining for years about dumb homebuilders who hang uncovered decks in the Seattle drizzle to go unused nine months of the year, I designed a dumb covered one, too narrow to accommodate four people around a table.
There’s also a disconnect between the face the house presents to the street and the values I’ve long staked out in my writing. Though stripped of nonsense, the house doesn’t represent what I believe. It still carries the faint whiff of nostalgia, as if it were quietly craving
a time-transplant to some Eisenhower-era suburb. It seems self-consciously cute. There’s no evident communion with the site. The southern exposure is squandered as far as solar energy is concerned.
In some compensation, the spaces inside are far more dramatic and interesting than the conventional exterior suggests. If I ever get time to build the furniture I’ve envisioned, it could be stunning.
What’s troubling me most is not any design issue, but our apparent cop-out. There’s a lot wrong with the way we build houses today: too costly, too unsustainable, too inflexible. Our house might have faced these issues—if we’d been willing to throw a lot more time into it, and settle for 500 fewer square feet.
The other morning, Patty said, “It’s time to quit beating yourself up and enjoy the house.” She’s right, of course; it’s a life skill worth learning.
What happens as an architecture critic learns to live in a highly imperfect environment of his own making? First, acceptance that there are always tradeoffs. The impulse to perfect our built environment, whether individual or communal, is itself unsustainable. There’s never enough time, money, or intelligence to get it all right. It was laughable to imagine that in a week of work playing architect I could wring a spectacular transformation in this house’s design. In retrospect, I should have cleared the boards and worked on it full-time for six months. But I already had full-time work that I had to keep doing to help pay for the house. If nothing else, I now have more empathy for architects who tell me they had to compromise in the face of budget reality.
But there’s something deeper. In his superb book The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton suggests that “it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.” And so I begin to see my reflection in the place I call home: imperfect, compromised, at peace.