Jørn Utzon – Kingo Courtyard Houses

Many years ago I co-designed a wonderful hillside house. The economy then tanked, and the clients put the project on hold. I opened my own firm, and got busy with that. About a year ago, I heard that the clients finally began construction. Just last week, I had a chance to see the house, and much to my delight it’s almost finished, and it looks great. I didn’t take any pictures, but I plan to at some point. Seeing the house almost finished got me to thinking about the genesis of the design. The house is very simple, with a few special touches, but its main features are the courtyard and the spectacular views. One of the challenges of designing in the hills is finding a way to provide good outdoor space, and I’ve long been a proponent of the courtyard as a way to do this.

This all brings me to Jørn Utzon, and the Kingo courtyard houses that he designed and that were built in the ’50s in Denmark. Utzon’s vision was for a simple, 50′ x 50′ courtyard house that could be built inexpensively. By building the houses back to back with zero lot lines, the interior wall of one house becomes the courtyard wall of the next. The houses nest against each other, and each family has its own outdoor space.

These houses served as the inspiration for the courtyard house mentioned above. But one of the interesting aspects of the Kingo houses is how they work together, and how the small footprint of the houses creates an interesting suburban street, and preserves open ‘mews’, or naturalistic open space.

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Designing for blue skies

One of my favorite house I designed at a previous firm.


I love designing houses. I have a blue sky philosophy; that we should design for the best days, and for the activities we want to nurture in our families. While it’s certainly possible to use sun angles to help figure out roof overhangs that shade in the summer and allow winter sun in, often designing for the best days means inviting the summer sun into our houses, and creating outdoor rooms that expand livable area. Having a clear hearth-like space for gathering in the winter months is also key. For most of my clients this is the kitchen, and even if the outdoor space isn’t used as much in the rainy months, visual access can still feel expansive.


My green philosophy centers around the same idea of setting aspirations rather than developing checklists. The keystone of sustainability is love and care. Without these all the other strategies are rudderless. For this reason I recommend natural materials that are well sourced along with adhesives, sealants, and paints that are non toxic. Good design with proper overhangs and detailing places less burden on potentially weak building elements, and increases durability. I tend to rely less on technological elements, though solar hot water, PV panels, and on-demand recirculation pumps can greatly offset energy demands from the grid and help cut waste.


I also believe that successful sustainability practices encourage strategies that extend beyond the walls of the house. I am a huge fan of edible gardens, using graywater where practical, and planting that requires low water use. Houses that respond to the street and the neighborhood, and that are attractive and inviting can help revitalize the block and establish community ties. Home offices allow for more dedicated and convenient work from home, which offsets transportation needs and has other benefits for families. Rental suites or backyard cottages can be used to support aging parents, boomerang kids, au pairs, or can even be rented out for supplemental income. These strategies can help create deeper social bonds, and help create livable density.


Finally, it is my goal to employ these strategies in small scale development projects. I am always looking for interested investing partners, and a bigger goal is to facilitate the development of cooperative-like projects that allow for a deeper sense of community–kind of like a coop for grownups. Please contact me to discuss these ideas further, I have a fair amount of knowledge and resources and believe there are many opportunities that currently exist.

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Case Study, Part 2

Case Study, part 2


Following up on the previous post about “Cheapskate Architect”; small changes that make a big difference in house design. If it wasn’t clear from the previous photos, this work isn’t “cheap”, but compared to adding new square footage these changes gave the owners a fresh and updated feel to their house, in addition to a more beautiful and generous place to live, while staying within their budget.

The completed exterior.


The before and after photos above show the transformation at the front of the house. The plan changed hardly at all, but it was important for my clients to change the look of the house. We did this most notably with the wood trellis, but we also changed the shape of the entry roof, we added a bench at the top of the front stair, and we added some new copper lights. Overall, this adds up to a more pronounced and graceful entry, with the expression of wood construction. In addition we replaced the garage door and the front door with new douglas fir doors. Once you pass the threshold of the front door, some subtle plan changes are revealed. We closed off the access to the front bedroom, and reconfigured the windows in that room so that they reflect the private nature of that bedroom. The interior entry is more defined, with a douglas fir roof to pick up the wood that is exposed at the exterior entry porch. We added a small and low half wall, and a coat closet so that the entry performs more like a vestibule. These subtle changes alter the feel of arrival at the house. The previous plan simply dumped you into the living room. The new plan allows for a choreographed transition from the outside to the inside, using materials and subtle plan changes.

Before the changes.

The last subtle plan change that makes a big difference is at the kitchen / dining room. At the beginning of the project we had designed a larger kitchen that pushed out into the front yard. For budgetary reasons this kitchen addition would have to be a Phase 2 project, but we still wanted to open up the kitchen. The clients purchased new appliances for the kitchen, which cleaned up the look quite a bit. But the big move was to open up the wall separating the kitchen and dining room. We installed a fairly large beam as the header for this opening, as this wall will be supporting significant roof load in Phase 2, and it had to tie into a the shear wall system as well. But the result was a nice opening that connected the public spaces of the house, in a tidy succession from the living room, through the dining room and kitchen, and out to the back deck and the yard.

The old Dining room, looking into the kitchen.


All these changes, achieved without adding any square footage, transformed this typical and slightly unwieldy bungalow into what feels like a new house, while staying within the budget.


The dining room, looking through the new opening into the kitchen.

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The Cheapskate Architect

The Cheapskate Architect, Explained

What the heck is a cheapskate architect? I’d like to try to answer that in a series of blog posts. The short answer is: an architect who helps solve tricky design problems in a simple way that doesn’t have to involve spending loads of money. The solution must have integrity and quality; cheapskate in this case doesn’t involve cutting corners or doing things ‘on the cheap’.

A factory repurposed as a winery.



Partly it is a response to living in rough economic times, and while these times doesn’t affect all strata of society equally, I have met many people who want to improve their houses but are unable or unwilling to pay the huge costs that most architect designed projects require. In looking back at some of the most rewarding projects I’ve worked on in recent years, they all share a common thread: a lot of design bang for a limited buck. It is also a response to the other realities of our time.

The office vehicle.


While I think we are all entitled to live our lives the way we want, we happen to be living in times that allow us unprecedented access to consumer goods, to suburban houses, to incredible technology. I think that these things have not brought our society all that was promised, and I don’t think this ease will last. I think it’s important to find ways to live a good life without such dependence on consumer items, and on cheap fuel. I think there are better and simpler ways to do things. I would rather grow a few vegetables in my garden, and be reconnected to seasons, to mild labor, and to the always rewarding phenomenon of harvest, than to spend that time watching tv or on the internet. I like having a backyard cottage, and the sometimes complex and more often rewarding social interaction that results, not to mention the income generated, and the incremental increase in the density of the neighborhood, which has many other benefits.


To bring this back to architecture, I plan to go over a few recently designed and built projects that show the subtle design moves that enabled the project to feel more generous and whole than expected, while keeping an eye on the budget. I’ll also go deeper into my ideas of how to get more out of your house and your living arrangements by incorporating some simple design strategies, and I’ll show some ways I’ve tried to integrate this line of thinking into my life.



Case Study, part 1

A major house remodel, with no added square footage. Today we’ll look at the bathroom.

This is what the bathroom looked like before.

The clients have 2 young children, and their house had a poor interior layout that they wanted to change. While the house had 3 bedrooms, the front bedroom had 2 doors, one of which opened into the living room and the other which opened into another bedroom. The front entry opened directly into the living room, which felt abrupt. The small kitchen felt disconnected from the rest of the house. And the bathroom felt small and inadequate. We were able to solve all of these problems, and the design solution gave the house a wholeness that it previously lacked.



The bathroom is the focus of today’s story. The before version of the bathroom felt cramped, and had very minimal storage. The toilet had inadequate clearance, the tub was shallow and unusable for adults.



Our solution was multifold: we moved the plumbing wall to increase the toilet clearance, and to allow for a 2 sink vanity. We swapped the swinging door for a pocket door, and we trimmed back the back of the adjacent bedroom closet to improve clearance. We added a window, installed a soaking tub, retiled the tub / shower stall in a beautiful client-chosen glass tile, and we added a skylight. Now the bathroom is a real retreat, open to the sky and the yard (luckily we didn’t have any privacy concerns), and it serves the needs of the family much better.

Here's what it looks like now.


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Some Bay Area Small Streets

I’ve been keeping my eyes open for narrow streets in my daily journeys, and here are a few photos of them.

Downtown San Francisco has many alleys that feel great; nicely scaled, lots of buildings around, and the roadways are small enough that the cars move very slowly, or not at all. I felt perfectly comfortable walking down the middle of the street. Maiden Lane is a pretty well known small street, but even though I’ve walked it many times it always reveals more interesting details. It’s also surprisingly calm given the fast-paced traffic that exists on Grant and Kearny, and all the other surrounding streets.


The next few are from Oakland. Just west of Broadway 13th street turns into a pretty interesting pedestrian street. The BART station leads right onto this street, and it runs from there to Preservation Park, which is another interesting block to explore another time. The federal building is a constant presence, and if you walk down the street you walk right through the large atrium. Taking a photo around there attracted lots of security guards, so I kept moving.


This next stretch has an interesting little amphitheater. Until relatively recently, the building on the left was an abandoned construction site, an apartment building that ran out of financing in the economic crash. But someone rescued it, and it really makes this walk pretty pleasant.

Downtown Oakland has lots of great things happening these days, it is becoming decidedly more urban, in a good way, and the streets are becoming increasingly activated. Though the stretch above was sparsely populated the day I took these photos.

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More of this please

I had lunch today at a sweet little cafe. Lunch was delicious, and due to the anomalous incredible weather (where’s the rain?), sat on the sidewalk and watched the world go by. The sidewalk traffic was mostly kids walking home from school (they still do that?) and there were plenty of other afternoon types: moms with babies and dogs, retired folks out for a stroll, and those who have non 9-to-5 jobs. Overall a pretty lively crowd. One think that was noticeable was how walkable this part of town is. Here’s a street shot taken near my table, notice all the features that make it interesting for walkers: wide enough sidewalk, awnings, sidewalk tables and chairs, lots of shops, and a tiled entryway for the apartments above. Let’s make more of this.

Note the apartment entryway tucked between the shops.


Below is another of my photoshopped series of narrow streets. Having weird filters allows the amateur and quick photoshopping to not be a huge issue. I would love it if we had places like this in Berkeley; walkable places with no car traffic at all. We can still have cars, and plenty of spots to park them, let’s just make sure they are in the right places.

Another narrow street in Berkeley. Yay!

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Preservation vs. Obstruction

A few interesting pieces on the preservation movement in recent days.

Here’s Matthew Yglasias discussing how the preservation status is being used to block a transit project in Washington, D.C.

Langston Terrace / Wikimedia Commons

Apparently this qualifies as a landmark.

Within the article referenced above is a link to this article by Ben Adler in Architectural Record, where he discusses the essence of the conflict.

I wholly support the preservation of historic buildings, and even of some buildings that may not have huge significance, but still have value. However, landmark committees are increasingly being used to block development that “concerned citizens” don’t like. Even if this is happening because the planning and zoning departments of cities have become toothless in helping residents feel empowered to have a voice in the shaping of their City, using landmark rules to obstruct development weakens the landmark committee’s legitimacy.

Cities must evolve and grow, and sometimes this means removing the old to make way for the new. A healthy city has a wide variety of buildings, old and new, and is continuously changing and adapting. Excessive landmarking can create staid and uninteresting places, and can backfire in many ways.

There was some debate in Berkeley a few years ago whether this building should be a landmark. As far as I know, the powers that be decided against this building as a designated landmark. Whew.

Take 2


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Really Narrow Streets

…Are all we need to fulfill our desire for livable, human scaled towns and cities. This is the essence of the argument made by Nathan Lewis, an economist who also writes very eloquently about Cities. This post by Mr. Lewis is about how the work of the New Urbanists misses the boat. It’s an interesting read, as are all his entries.

The French village of Eguisheim

I find this to be a brilliantly simple distillation of many ideas that are out there. Transit oriented development, bike friendly, pedestrian scaled. All of these things are easily accomplished by simply building really narrow streets. How narrow? Think of any great City you’ve travelled to, and imagine the historic district. Rome, Santorini, Venice, Bath, Tokyo-they all have streets that are sized primarily for people to walk. And they wind up being about 15-20 feet wide. The genius of this is that there is simply no accommodation for cars. Cars can pass on some narrow streets, but it is clearly not their environment, so they do not dominate the landscape.

Because the buildings are so close together, it is pretty easy to walk wherever you want. The compact city can fit enough stuff within an easy walking radius. This allows transit to make sense, once the landscape is filled up with buildings and people instead of roads and free (or inexpensive) parking.

The village of Uzes

Miraculously, no one complains about how crappy these traditional cities are. Would it be at all possible to do something like this in the United States? For whatever reasons, we built our cities with very wide streets, even before the landscape was dominated by cars. Christopher Alexander and his team designed a school campus in Tokyo, and this idea is readily apparent in the photos.

Christopher Alexander's Eishin Campus outside Tokyo


It’s hard to even imagine something like this in the United States. We only have a few cities that have traditional cores, such as Boston. Most of our cities are enslaved by the grid, most have huge roadways and tons of surface parking lots. I won’t even bother talking about the suburban development. Why is this important? Because the entire country seems at risk of becoming a giant automobile slum. For most American towns, does anyone bother to visit them because the town-scape is so lovely? Probably not. Does anyone take pictures of the streets? Maybe the buildings, but surely not the streets. Traditional towns have embedded in them the secret to making significant places. These are places that people care about, that have thriving communities, and that reinforce and establish strong social connections. In the US, we have to dutifully get in our cars to maintain our social connections. And that time has no secondary benefit, and rarely is the journey part of the pleasure. It’s all destination, and they are becoming increasingly costly, both in money and in time.

Here’s a photoshopped image of what a local shopping district could look like if we used the 15-20 foot narrow street rule. Not bad, add some housing above, and a train station down the way, and we might be on to something.

Magically narrow street

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“Hedonistic Sustainability”

Danish Architect Bjarke Ingels gives a TEDx talk about how designing for sustainability can make the world better, and it doesn’t mean that we have to feel bad, or have lives that are stripped of good times. Rather, we can design great projects that celebrate life. He sure is having a lot of fun!


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Here’s the link for our event

Beyond Green Buildings - Eventbrite (link expired)

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