Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Sound of Newspaper Hitting the Ground

I thoroughly enjoy reading the newspaper, the paper version, where there is physical contact with real paper. It is a pleasure to drop the sections of the newspaper I have read, and those I do not intend to read on the floor beside me. It gives me great satisfaction in seeing the pile of read newspaper sections grow in relation to the pile of unread sections still on the table. But perhaps most satisfying, is the sound the newspaper makes when it hits its resting place. The sound varies depending on where it is dropped on hardwood floor, concrete floor, a chair,  a rug. The sound also varies based on the thickness of the section, and even upon the dampness or dryness of the paper. There is something about the newspaper sound that is resilient and hardy. I presume everyone has their own individual sound thing.’ Newspapers hitting a surface just happens to be mine.

Sounds are emitted from just about everything, and sometimes you do not even realize a sound is being made. I was amazed when I first heard the sound of a bird flying through a slot canyon in Utah. Birds appear to fly silently, but the movement of the air created by a bird’s wings produces a very clear and distinct whooshing sound. Birds mistakenly appear to fly and land silently and weightlessly, yet in the stillness of the high desert, I watched a bird land on the ground and emit a very loud thud.


Sound surrounds us, and there are certain sounds we associate with distinct locations the sound of your front door opening, the sound of an oven door slamming, a dog running on tile flooring. These particular sounds can remain in your memory forever. While particular smells can evoke distinct times and places, a distinct sound only occurs in its place of origin.

A building’s sound can be described as live, soft, bright, and dead. Certain spaces, such as restaurants, are often deliberately designed to be loud, while the preference for houses is to be on the quiet side. When designing a house, architects typically rely on intuition and the common knowledge that non-parallel surfaces and a mixture of hard and soft surfaces create a softer building, as compared to parallel surfaces and hard materials that create a louder building.

The PLUShouse, now complete, was designed for musical events and for acoustic excellence. It is a sculptural music box, where the client plays solo piano, a quartet plays regularly, and the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble performed for an Arts for Oakland Kids fund raiser. Whether sound is being produced by a solo instrument for solitary purposes or by a group of musicians for an audience of 40, the acoustics in the PLUShouse can be described as clear and bright. Music surrounds you, and the open floor plan, discontinuous surfaces, folding roof planes, a sloping ramp and the mixture of hard and soft surfaces are instrumental in creating not only a fabulous house, but a perfectly balanced musical hall.

Friday, September 25, 2015


The PLUShouse is close to completion - the interior is painted; tile work and a portion of the casework installed, and exterior finishes complete. There is a striking contrast between the exterior stucco, the color of homemade crème fraiche, and the dark bronze roof and window and door frames. The radiant concrete floors are Sarlat-gold, the color of the earth that the house is sitting on, and the interior stairs and casework, built from fumed larch, are a rich bittersweet chocolate with stripes of butterscotch. The form of the house is organic. A sculptural piece awaiting construction of a living fence, glass and steel entry bridge, interior concrete ramp with associated casework, etched glass entry panels (to be installed in the location of the plywood, seen in the image below), and other finish items. A big moment will be when the grand piano is delivered and played– a true test of acoustical performance, a criteria instrumental in the design of the house.
entry facade awaiting glass and steel entry bridge

Building a house is a narrative, a linked set of events. You begin by excavating earth, pouring a foundation, erecting a skeletal structure on top of the foundation, (the framing), and then gradually closing in the structure with plywood, water proof paper, windows, doors, roofing, rough plumbing and electric, insulation, exterior siding, sheet rock and paint. It is a process whereby raw building materials ultimately disappear - the fluidity of the concrete pour becomes a hard impenetrable surface, the framing disappears behind sheet rock, plumbing lines become invisible and the apparent jungle of electric wiring yields to well-placed light fixtures and electric switches (or, in the case of the PLUShouse, a few recessed niches in the wall where an iPad can be magnetically secured, and from the iPod all electric functions are controlled).

pouring the concrete floor, installing control joints

finished concrete floor with Sarlat-gold integral color

During construction sketches and mathematical calculations are frequently drawn on raw materials to convey a detail, to explain a design intent or alignment, to work out a tricky dimension. These marks and drawings gradually disappear under sheetrock and paint. Ultimately, what is inside a wall can no longer be seen. But there remains a secret life inside the wall, a story which is rarely told.
critical dimensions being worked out in field

full sized drawing working out window sill detail

These silent drawings inside the walls document a process but leave no trace. It is the reverse of pentimento, where a previous alteration in a painting is later revealed. It also has tones of palimpsest, where an object made or worked upon for one purpose is later used for another.


pentimento - Arnolfini wedding, Jan van Eyck, 1434
both faces were originally higher
her eyes looked more to the front
each of his feet was underdrawn in one position

painted in another position
overpainted in a third position

palimpset - wall as canvas
Surrey Hill, Sydney, Australia

Another disappearing act which occurs during construction is the unconscious emergence of 'construction art'. These constructs are visible evidence of a process, and are always accidental. For instance, a pattern that is revealed after installing a finish on a product.

pattern left on plywood after spray painting
ceiling vents to match ceiling paint color
pattern remaining on cloth after spray painting
light fixture trim pieces to match ceiling paint color

Every project has a story. As with most stories, time progresses and details are forgotten, sequences altered, moments which initially seemed important are lost. The drawings and construction art remain as silent vestiges of this process.

I love these lost images. They are an essential part of the story, and are integral to the beauty of building. 

Sunday, May 31, 2015


It is not unusual to begin a conversation with a complete stranger. The conversation can be brief or extended, and can take place anywhere – on an airplane; while standing in line; at a family gathering with relatives you haven’t seen in a decade.

After the usual pleasantries (weather, this line is interminable, how are we related?, etc.), it is not unusual for the conversation to turn to what we do for a living. Almost inevitably, when I express that I am an architect, the response is: “I always wanted to be an architect, or, “I wanted to be an architect when I was little”. Or, “ I seriously considered being an architect, but……....” It’s uncanny.

When I was little I wanted to live on a farm and ride horses all day and have my mother take care of my children (this is still something I want to do). Everyone dreams of a future, and it seems almost every little girl wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up, or a doctor or a teacher. I recently had a conversation with someone I didn’t know, and discovered this person is a veterinarian. I thought ‘that would be a really cool job’. It was at that moment that I understood the response, and the raised eyebrows and inquisitive look I typically get when I express that I am an architect.

It is really cool being an architect. We see the results of your work in 3-dimensions, meet interesting people we would never have contact with, and explore beyond the boundaries of what we know. Many of us like to travel, and sketch.
Little boat in Yarra Harbor, Victoria
Lady Elliot Island, Queensland
Lighthouses: 1860 (foreground), 1992 (background)

Coral, Lady Elliot Island

Fraser Island, Queensland

The world on a stormy day in Lennox Head, NSW

Wednesday, December 3, 2014


There is a certain type of magic that occurs when a building rises out of the earth. After the many months, and oftentimes years, of work put into designing a building, it is mesmerizing to see that building materialize right before your eyes. Although the process is more or less the same for each building (movement of dirt; forming and pouring foundations; framing; roofing; installation of windows and doors; siding; etc.), seeing the same thing for the first time, the tenth time or even for the hundredth time, is always a bit magical. Like repeatedly listening to the same symphony.
A symphony of sorts - Laurie laying out a template of her piano to locate electric floor outlets before the concrete pour
What is most stunning is how easy it seems. But it isn’t, of course.

What we do as architects is not magic, but perhaps it is the strong belief in images and answers that is most captivating - the attraction of finding just the right solution to a problem where there is no correct answer. I have awoken in the middle of the night, perplexed by a discrepancy of 2” between the construction documents and the field conditions of the project under construction. Then figured out how to turn that 2” discrepancy in order to benefit the project. Or, while swimming laps in the early morning when it is still dark, the perfect solution to a small detail that has been needling me pops into my mind, just like magic.

Finding a solution to a problem is always rewarding. But seeing a solution materialize, in real time and space, is magical.
pouring the concrete slab over the radiant tubing
framing begins on top of finished slab

location of ramp leading from entry to public spaces 

top of future ramp terminating at public spaces (lower left)