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It's finally time for the last batch of house book summaries. For now.

First up is The New Family Home: Creating the Perfect Home for Today and Tomorrow by Jim Toplin (3/5). Toplin wrote Built-In Furniture: A Gallery of Design Ideas (Idea Book) (which I also read). This book has two general categories of ideas for making a great family home. First, the home must be flexible and able to change with the changing needs of a family. E.g., the shared rooms and play loft which worked great for children may give way to a relatively private room for a teenager. That may eventually turn into a room for aging grandparents or even, eventually, an easy access master bedroom as the home's owners age. The book has many suggestions around this.

The other category of suggestions was around customizing a home to make it unique and memorable. Many of these suggestions included ways to improve children's space: play lofts, built-in desks and beds, an in-bedroom sink to reduce teenage bathroom fights. Lots of interesting ideas. The main downside to this book is that it was organized as case studies. As I have mentioned many times before, I find books that I prefer books that spend some time extracting more general lessons from the specific examples they present. In so far as this was your standard figure-it-out-yourself case study book, I did not like it as well as I could have.

The second book was How to Work With an Architect by Gerald Lee Morosco, AIA (2/5). This book was full of valuable information about working with an architect, but at only 100 pages (half of which were pictures that were largely irrelevant), it would have made a better pamphlet or blog post series. As a book, it did not quite seem to be worth it's cost. That said, if you want to understand what an architect brings to a building project and the basics of how to work with one, it provides good, solid advice.

Sarah Susanka's More Not So Big Solutions for Your Home (3/5) is a fine sequel to the original Not So Big Solutions for Your Home (reviewed here). Like that book, this book contains reprinted magazine articles, each of which discusses a different issue. As with that book, if the issues discussed are relevant to you, you will likely find the book interesting. Otherwise, you will not. Study the table of contents.

More Not So Big Solutions has a fair amount of overlap with the first book. When the books covered the same issues, they tended to cover the same material. As such, if a topic of interest to you is in both books, you will get the most bang for your buck by just reading one of the treatments.

The last book I read was Ergonomic Living : How to Create a User-Friendly Home & Office by Gordon Inkeles and Iris Schencke (2/5). I am only giving the book 2 stars because the second half, on offices, was largely obsolete (the book was published in 1994). Much of the text in that half was spent on obsolete technologies such as dealing with the ergonomic difficulties of CRT monitors, green text on black screens, dot matrix printers, and other things that are not particularly relevant. 

However, the parts that were relevant were pretty good. The authors have a fairly prescriptive style, but they do give lots of good advice. Particularly useful were sections discussing good lighting, how to choose good furniture (such as chairs and mattresses), and how to make your home ergonomically friendly for children. The authors are big fans of task lighting, lever handles on door knobs and faucets, and configurable furniture (especially for children since they grow quickly). Overall, this was a good book that I will be consulting again for various ergonomic decisions.  
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Finished Inside the Not So Big House: Discovering the Details That Bring a Home to Life by Sarah Susanka and Marc Vassallo and Good House Parts: Creating a Great Home Piece by Piece by Dennis Wedlick. Both of these books earn a 2/5 from me, although they would likely have earned higher if it weren't for the fact that I am getting burned out on just reading house books. Once I am done with my current batch (just 3 or 4 more), I will consider myself done with general house books.

Inside the Not So Big House covers much of the same content as Susanka's Home by Design: Transforming Your House Into Home, but through case studies rather than through discussion of the principles involved. Since I prefer a balance which leans toward principles, I did not find this book particularly useful.

Wedlick's book was better; it presented a balanced alternation of principles and case studies. However, it did not really cover anything new. It fits into the category of books that would make a good (maybe great) first book, but is not worth much as an Nth book.
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I got 14 house books from the library. None of them are particularly high content. They consist largely of pictures (which is exactly what I want right now). This, fortunately, makes them easy to review in batches. So here are the first 4.

First up is Wright-Sized Houses: Frank Lloyd Wright's Solutions for Making Small Houses Feel Big; by Diane Maddex. Other than the terrible pun in the title, this was a pretty good book. I give it a 3/5. The book is divided into two parts. The first part describes some of the techniques Wright used. The second part has a number of case studies. The degree to which you'll like this book is probably directly proportional to the degree to which you like Frank Lloyd Wright (and are not already an expert in his techniques and homes).

Sarah Susanka's Not So Big Solutions For Your Home is a collection of articles from Fine Homebuilding magazine. I am a big fan of it (4/5) because it talks about practical solutions to a lot of modern real world issues (e.g., dealing with the TV and entering from the garage). Given the format, the articles do not cover a lot of issues (there are only 30 articles), but the topics that are covered are generally covered in more detail than elsewhere. I will admit that the last section, on remodeling, failed to interest me.

Next up is John Wheatman's Meditations On Design (4/5). This book considers features which make a successful interior design. As such, it's not so useful at this point in my design process, but I still really enjoyed it. It reminds me of Pasanella's Living in Style Without Losing Your Mind. I appreciate how the principles Wheatman discussion are not limited to any particular style.

Last up we have Marc Vassallo's The Barefoot Home. This was my least favorite of this batch (2/5). A barefoot home is a home that is informal and open and has a strong indoor/outdoor connection. All good ideas that I can get behind, but the concept never really gelled for me. The idea of a barefoot was never sufficiently differentiated from all of the other ways of describing a good house. Plus, the case studies were largely vacation cottages. These can provide inspiration for a non-vacation home, but there are a lot of things about them that cannot be translated to a full time home.

4 down, 10 to read!

Some detailed notes on the Wright book, mostly for myself )

Some detailed notes on Wheatman's book, mostly for myself )
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Finished The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape by James Howard Kunstler. Part history, part analysis, and part plain old rant, The Geography of Nowhere discusses the evolution of the cities and houses in the U.S. in the city, the country, and the suburbs.

Kunstler starts with a historical overview of housing and community development in the U.S., starting with colonial towns and ending with the soulless suburban sprawl of today. Although much of the content was familiar, the historical overview had a number of surprises.

If you grew up in the U.S., when you think of an agricultural community you think of isolated farm houses surrounded by fields. Historically, agricultural communities have had a rather different setup. Homes were clustered together, and these town centers were surrounded by the farm lands. Your farmland was not necessarily adjacent to your property, but it was within a manageable distance. This layout provided safety and was more efficient for people without cars. The country sprawl that we think of as typical today is actually a result of the vast amounts of lands in the American west and the governments policies for settling them.

The history of the suburb is also surprising. Again in the U.S., you generally think of suburbs as the result of car induced sprawl. However, the first suburbs were built in the 1800s as communities along rail lines. They shared many features with modern suburbs (people lived there but did not work there, they were often planned communities of similar homes). However, they differed in one key respect. The original suburbs were built to human scale. Because they were rail suburbs, the residents still had to be able to walk within the community. Furthermore, the railroad station provided a natural center to the community, something which modern suburbs lack.

The next part of the book discusses the changes in house styles in the U.S. This part contains a fair bit of ranting about modern architecture. Home: A Short History of an Idea by Witold Rybczynski does a better job of presenting similar information. (my review).

Kunstler presents case studies of 6 cities, pointing out what is right about them and what is wrong, and closes with a discussion of what is being done to make better places and stronger communities. Overall, I enjoyed The Geography of Nowhere. Kunstler ranted enough to be amusing without being distracting. The historical perspective and the case studies were valuable resources. Even though this book was published in 1993, it is still relevant. In fact, it may be increasingly relevant as the crash of the housing bubble lends energy to community rebuilding efforts.
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Finished The Value of Design by Marianne Cusato. This is a short (50 pg) guide to designing better communities. From the back
Design matters. Design adds value to our homes and communities in terms of dollars and cents, but its value is deeper than monetary. Design can greatly improve our quality of life and the condition of our fragile environment. How we build our homes nad communities is a choice, not a given. It is within our reach to build nice places, to find change and to live more sustainable on our planet. This is the true value of design.


This book uses lots of pictures to explain what design elements make for good neighborhoods and homes and which detract from the quality of life defined by a place. For example, I now understand why I hate the false brink or stone fronts most modern construction. First, a home is three dimensional, and it is only in listing photos that you can see the front of the house without seeing the plain siding sides. Second, false fronts use things like brick and stone like they are wall paper and contradict our understanding of those materials as structural elements. Even though the brick and stone are not structural, when the front of a house is covered with brick and the rest is not, it feels like the front is going to tip over and fall off.

My one negative comment about this book is that there are a few places throughout where it reads like an advertisement for JamesHardie, the fiber cement siding manufacturer that sponsored the book (mostly at the very end). That said, it is still worth a read, especially if you just want a quick overview of what makes for a well designed community and home.
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One more book summary and then you will be safe from them for at least a week!

Home: A short history of an idea )
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Finished The House: Its Origins and Evolution by Stephen Gardiner. Gardiner gives a history of the development of the form of the home. The history of the house begins with caves, but we quickly move on from caves to round houses made out of primitive materials. Over time, both the design of the house and the materials use advance and mature until we reach ancient Greek and Japanese architectures, considered by Gardiner to be the epitomes of ancient architecture. This history up through this point was fairly detailed. After that, Gardiner skims over the relatively uneventful time between Greek architecture and the Renaissance. From there he gives an overview of what he considers the most important styles. Next up is Gardiner denouncing modern home architecture (both densely packed cities and sprawling suburbs feel his criticism, a theme I shall take up later). However, all is not hopeless, and he ends the book by pointing out the positives of late 20th century architecture.

Gardiner has a very specific aesthetic, and I have not read enough architecture books to know whether or not it is peculiar. He likes styles where the elegance and design of the structure comes from the form of the building. Extraneous decoration (such as that found in Victorian architecture) is something he considers to be ugly. His taste happens to line up with mine, but I cannot completely agree with his wholesale dismissal of decoration. A point made in The Architecture of Happiness (de Botton) is that elaborate decoration can be a useful way to feel in control for a society that may not be in control. Gardiner believes buildings should be beautiful; he does not think that the appearance of a building should be defined only by its function. However, he does believe that the building should come from the form of the building and the materials used, not some extraneous trappings.

Throughout, Gardiner stresses that successful buildings should have a human scale and fit the community around them. Both these points express, on different levels that buildings should respond to needs. A building that has human scale responds to the need for space and for protection that an individual feels. A building that fits the community around it would fit in with the existing community stylistically as well as fulfilling the needs of the community for safe places that allow interaction of the residents with the larger community.

The only thing I disliked about this book was Gardiner's writing style. The book was filled with one to two page paragraphs, long and complicated sentences (worse than mine!), and lots of jargon and undefined terms. The jargon is what bugged me the most. While I do not expect an architecture book to necessarily assume that the reader has as little knowledge of architecture as I do, I do expect the author to try at least a little. For example, Gardiner mentioned buildings on "piloti" half a dozen times (or so I guess) before he said "piloti, or stilts". Once it said that, it was clear enough what piloti were. If he had done that earlier, I would have been saved much confusion. He also had a whole chapter on the concept of mandala's in architecture without defining "mandala" (a mandala, as he used it, is a geometic symbol that represent the unity of the universe).

Overall, good but dense book. Although I have not yet found a more readable book with the history, I can certainly recommend lighter books that discuss some of the same concepts of human scale and community.

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Erika RS

May 2012

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