The Omnivore’s Dilemma: 3 challenges of the industrialized life.

untitledI’m reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma a wonderful book on the industrialization of the food industry over the last 100 years. It is clear the food industry faces challenges that are eerily similar to those of our current housing market. For housing, it is plagued by McMansions, sprawl, and poor quality; in the food industry, it struggles with large portions,  obesity, and fast food.

The best example of the success (and failure) of modern food production is the Twinkie. The hostess wonder and star of many movies (including Woody Harrelson’s elusive treasure in Zombieland), the Twinkie has a similar background to our houses because it was originally made from real ingredients but has devolved into a plastic copy.

twinkiesThe Twinkie, according to Wikipedia, was once “real”, in that it was made from flour, eggs, sugar, and even real bananas for its filling. Although not completely changed (in that there is still flour and eggs as part of the recipe) today the Twinkie is filled with more additive then honest ingredients. Many of the original ingredients have been replaced by scientific equivalents to improve its shelf life and keep its price down. Our industrialized culture has changed the Twinkie as well as our homes.  It’s no wonder we have cookie-cutter homes the come from the same mold.

Below are just 3 of many similar challenges that we must resist if we hope to build Timeless Houses.

1. Speed:

Author Michael Pollan seeks to track the path of corn, from where it’s grown in Iowa all the way to the products on our pantry shelves. He discovers that much of our corn is feed to cows because corn fattens the cows faster than any other grain. In fact the speed at which we fatten cows has changed dramatically in the last 100 years. In the 1920′s it would take 4-6 years before a cow was sent to a slaughter-house. Today it is 14-16 months.

Speed also influences and overwhelms the homebuilding industry. From the builders who seek to “turn-their-inventory” as fast as possible to the trees that are grown on massive plantations around the world. Compare old growth lumber: its stability, longevity and beauty to new lumber which is not stable, rots quickly and is filled with knots. Although speed may improve the bottom-line, there are costs that we need to consider. Our houses are built faster but they don’t last longer. . .

2: Quantity over Quality:

Pollan also points out that the anonymity of today’s farms and growers stands in contrast to old farms that proudly printed their name and label on burlap sacks or crates. When all that is advertised from the grocery store is, “Tomatoes $1.09/lb”. It sends a clear signal to the farmer that price is all that matters.

Builders today, are also harried by the price tag and naturally race to build as much home as possible for the least amount of money. When I talk to many builders about the ideas in this book, they tell me that all customers care about is price. We are sacrificing quality when we cram in extra square footage. We need to realize the message we are giving the industry when we chase price.


Another resounding insight in his book, (and there are more than I’m listing here)  is that the typical farmer today in Iowa grows either corn or soy beans. In the early 20th century a typical farm in Iowa grew many different plants (oats, hay, wheat), raised animals and was more self-sufficient. The farm in the early 1900′s could support itself, as well as provide for other Americans. Today these farmers are no longer self-sufficient.

The clear similarity is with today’s builders who don’t know how to build. They know how to manage the project, schedule and budget but as far as putting hammer to nail, they are ignorant. Most builders don’t know a framing square from four-square. The irony of a builder who can’t build is pretty crazy. The bottom-line is that we are certainly not as self-reliant as we once were.

Michael Pollan points out that with food, “You are what you eat”. I would add that with our homes, we are what we build. The homes we build reveal a lot about who we are. There is a clear narrative that needs careful consideration. If we don’t watch out, this industrialized world will run us over.


Recent sketches: a new trophy room

I’m working with a client on a new trophy room. I wanted to share some of the sketches as I think it gives you some insight into a process of fixing McMansions. I was giving a talk last night to the Center for Architecture here in Fort Worth and I was relating the false assumption many builders and homeowners make about craft and quality.

This common mistake is assuming that a rich material automatically equates to great design or great craftsmanship. For example, I’ve been told by proud homeowners that their house has a cherry library. In making this statement, they are assuming their cherry has the same name brand recognition as Mercedes or Ferrari. I was naturally to assume that a cherry library automatically assures quality and great design.

Sadly, it means they could have an ugly library that was poorly designed and the cherry was actually wasted. Ironically, their boast could be their downfall. The ultimate value of the end product requires good design, good craft and then good materials. The material does not come before design and craft. Remember this anytime someone brags about granite counters, large crown moldings or oak cabinets.


For this project, we wanted more than just a trophy room. We wanted to make sure they have beautiful space with a strong historic precedent that is grounded in craft and design. This is what their architect had drawn, and I feel it is a little plain.


Game Room EuropeanI worked to create some rhythm and scale to the long wall by breaking it up into 3 sections.(only a portion of which is shown here). I also made the pilasters relate to the beams above.

Also in this early phase I was playing around with an English vs. French design ideal. The English represented by the smaller panels on the left and the French by the tall panels on the right.


Game room detailThis sketch is a close up showing the opportunity for a plate rail and how a mount might sit on the top of the column.







Game room original_2


Here is the architect’s end wall. The elevation didn’t really express the true condition of the exterior, as there is a window above the door.





Game room sketches_2



This was the first run at the end wall playing around with different beam options as well as different panel heights.






game room small

By this 3rd round, the client had determined they like the 4 centered arches in the upper panels.

They also like the detailing in the lower panels. Note that they have chosen the beams that sit tight to the ceiling.



As of this writing the client is wanting to blend the French and English so we are going to give them a broad ”European” feel. We’ll carefully mix moldings and finishes to carry out this look.

As we get further along, I’ll share more details.

I look forward to your feedback.












A Timeless little cabin in the woods and on a lake.

lakeI’ve just returned from my summer vacation in Canada where I’ve grown up each summer at our cabin on the Lake of the Woods. We are above Minnesota in lake country; our area is dotted with rocky and wooded islands and clear water.

My parents are originally from Winnipeg, Manitoba, and in the late 1940′s my grandfather bought 2 acres of water frontage land for $700. He bought it, understanding that he had to have a house settled on the property within 2 years or he lost his claim. With no roads  to the property, the raw land filled with poplar, fir trees and poison ivy was reached only by water. On weekends they would slowly move piles of lumber and salvaged building materials on choppy waters in a small wooden boat.  In time, they cleared the land and built a small 400-square foot cabin that included a living room, a kitchen with a wood burning stove and one bedroom. There was no running water and of course they used an outhouse as necessary.

When my father finally built a winterized cabin in the 90′s the question of keeping the Bunkie, as it was now called, was discussed. Being a young and newly educated preservationist, the story and narrative of the first cabin that my grandfather and dad built was too appealing to lose or forsake. Later that summer, me and my new bride, decided to fix up the Bunkie and make it ours.


Here’s a picture of the Bunkie today. The original cabin did not include the deck or the lower roofed porch on the right. Hardly a great beauty, but still a great story. It tells me how my grandfather, used salvaged windows and doors to cobble together a cabin.


The interior is where the Bunkie shines. It’s painted tongue and groove wood paneling looks bright and fresh, we took out the fiberglass tile ceiling and painted the open rafters. We also added salvaged doors and historic hardware that sprinkle the interior with color and charm.

interiorThe water skis are the ones I learned to ski on in the early 70′s.

The furniture are things Krissy and I have gathered and found over the years. A Stickley-style rocker, a pine chest and wicker furniture.


interior 2The prints are by W.J. Phillips, a local artist (Kenora) who crafted and made wood block prints in the 1920′s. His work is haunting and dreamy and I hope to own some originals someday.




interior bathBehind the green doors is a small bath that was added in the 1980′s. It holds a small shower, sink, toilet and linen cabinet. Towels are hung on pegs and the room is wrapped in a high wood wainscot with a shelf.







interior red wingWe luckily found that my grandmother owned some Red Wing Pottery that we now display in a small corner niche. Red Wing pottery is from the famous pottery in Minnesota a few hours south of us.  Ours dates from the 1950′s or 60′s. It has a dark brown glaze on the exterior and a teal-green glaze inside. It is from their Village Green collection.





lake 2The Bunkie is a timeless house because it has a great story that needs to be remember. It’s easy to forget with our power boats and new-cottage- comforts that life, just a short while ago, was more primitive.

The Bunkie is still very small. Even with the added porch and bath it is still only a 800 square feet. This “small living” is good for us; living closer together, sharing bedrooms and one bath, makes us tighter: we talk more, we listen to music together and we function more closely as a family. This is a good thing, which we hope to enjoy for years to come.