An Existential Question

by Don Friedman on March 15, 2018

In the last year or so, people in the A/E/C community have had the all-too-rare pleasure of watching a new critic come into her own. Kate Wagner began with McMansion Hell, a web site devoted to making fun of the excess of pointlessly large and horribly undersigned houses, but has branched out into other forms of architectural critique. Realistically, McMansion Hell is fun but trifling, and Wagner’s eye and writing are too good to be wasted on a trifle.

She recently wrote a piece for Curbed called “Are home renovations necessary?” That’s enough to send a shiver down my spine, as our office works on a fair number of house renovations, but the subtitle is worse (or better, depending on your view): “Renovations have become a national pastime, but there is nothing wrong with your house.” If everyone stops renovating tomorrow, the market for an engineering firm that specializes in old buildings shrinks dramatically. So, do I disagree with Wagner for selfish reasons, agree with her and starve, or is there another option?

It seems to me that she is arguing two points. First, people often mistake home renovations for life improvements. I’ve seen this in person and I’ve seen this problem represented in media as far back as Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House in 1948. Second, a spate of reality TV shows have convinced people that their homes should look like the pictures in architectural fashion magazines. Those pictures are intensely artificial, with all the clutter of actual life hidden away and replaced with artistically-placed fruit bowls (or whatever the latest cliché is). Those pictures are also part of a long architectural tradition of ignoring and hiding the messy parts of life when they interfere with the designers’ vision. Of course, no one should renovate their house – an expensive and disruptive undertaking – without good reason.

Having said all this, I feel a little better about our house projects. They rarely take place within an occupied building: probably 90 percent of them are post-purchase and pre-move-in. More importantly, we are serving a different demographic. The middle class is notably absent from our residential client list for the simple reason that the renovations that most people can afford are small enough to not need engineers. We work on housing for poor people, usually through housing non-profits or government agencies, and we design renovations for people who have enough money to make structural alterations to a house, such as additional floors in rowhouses. Wagner is not, as far as I can see, telling rich people to not renovate. She’s telling the middle class that their houses are okay.

The Details of a Technological System

February 20, 2018

This is an underside view of the heel connection of a heavy timber truss. The piece of wood at the top of the picture is the bottom chord, roughly 12 inches by 12 inches in section, and you can’t see the top chord above it. The bolt ties the two chords together, but the real […]

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A Clever Oldy-Timey Detail

February 14, 2018

That mess is the edge of a stoop. It’s shored, so obviously it’s got problems, but ignoring that issue for a second, the first question we should be asking is “How did this thing ever stand up?” It’s brownstone, which is to say weak stone with a tendency to come apart from weathering. Each step […]

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Design At Different Scales

February 1, 2018

Rain Noe gives a nice summary of cast-iron vault lights here: Urban Design Observation: Why SoHo Has 19th Century Glass Sidewalks and Stoops. Noe is approaching vault lights from an industrial design perspective, which is obviously different from my background. The nice thing about design discussions is that one perspective isn’t necessarily more right than another: […]

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A Slight Exaggeration

January 20, 2018

Those are the columns at the first floor of a seven-story concrete-frame industrial. building from the 1920s. They are roughly three feet in diameter and spaced at twenty feet on center. When that percentage of floor area is occupied by columns, they are intrusive and affect everything that might be done with the space. If […]

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An Iron Appendix

January 16, 2018

That’s a photo of an areaway in London. The wall on the right is the building and I’m standing at the corner of the areaway. The black coping along the left is on top of the curb that’s an extension of the areaway’s outboard wall, extending above the sidewalk. If I had to guess, I’d […]

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January 8, 2018

That’s the ceiling – which appears to be the structural roof – at the north entry to the Whitehall Street station on the R/W. Specifically, this is the stair leading down from the entry mezzanine to the platform. The excavated volume of space is a sloped rectangular prism, with the roof following the slope. The […]

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A Possible Example of the Design Fallacy

January 2, 2018

There’s an idea that’s been floating around for decades – I actually forget where I first encountered it – called the Design Fallacy. This fallacy is based on the idea that “designed” is better than “undesigned” and that more design is better than less design. Examples of it are always objects where the external design […]

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Theory Imposed on Reality

December 15, 2017

That’s a fine, very-short-span bridge in the Ramble in Central Park. Honestly, it feel ridiculous to call it a bridge when the space below it resembles, more than anything else, a door, but what else could it be? One pedestrian path crosses over another, and a wall of large ashlar blocks has a hole in […]

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“The Bridge”

December 5, 2017

Some great construction photographs of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge: here. I’ve worked on a few pedestrian bridges in the last thirty years and one dam, but that’s it: otherwise my projects have all been buildings. But bridges occupy a chunk of my brain and always will because of their nature as expressed engineering. There are a […]

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