How Tough Times May Lead to Better Architecture

  How Tough Times May Lead to Better Architecture

While Ben Bernanke fantasizes about the Recovery, most people in the building industry – especially in overbuilt Florida – will correct this gross error immediately and emphatically.  The recession may be over for the Fed Chairman, but unemployment in the design and construction professions is probably in the 25-30% range, matching that of the Great Depression.

 Even so, tiny glimmers of light shine in what many design professionals call the “microeconomy” of building – small commercial renovations, house additions, tenant improvements, and other projects normally too small to even be counted. Although they lack the whallop, or the profits of big  stuff   – hotels, hospitals, or new towns – these do count, and are anecdotally turning towards local vernacular design and even contemporary architectural design as a strategy to beat the system, possibly pointing the way for the future.

Architectural styles are a slow-moving parade of fashions, too often divorced from climate, regional characteristics, or the cultural backgrounds of those who choose them.  For most commercial and residential architecture that sprang up around neighborhoods, a mix of Victorian and Spanish Mediterranean styles seemed to be universally implemented by developers trying to please the largest quantity of people in the shortest period of time.  Homes with terra cotta tiles and beige arches seemed to lurk behind bland Victorian Main Streets that sprouted everywhere from Montana to Alabama, betrayed by skin-tight fixed windows and paper-thin detailing.  As branding elements, these styles nationalized what was once regional and climate-specific design.

Once again, we seem to be repeating history.  In the 1870s and 1880s, suburbs began in many cities, and for the first time homeowners could choose custom-designed houses rather than production homes.  Relative peace and prosperity begat a rush to consumerism matched only by our recent ambitions, and the Victorians became well known for an architecture and interior design style that promoted fussy detailing, the display of ornate and exotic materials, and homes overlaid with a frenzy of patterned wood siding, stained glass, carved woodwork, and high-pitched rooflines so that even the roof shingles could be a place to show off wealth.  Furniture makers and material suppliers invented new products to feed the demand for consumer goods.

Yet this all crashed right at the turn of the 20th century, mostly because of the economic transitions suffered going back to the Panic of 1893.  Suppressed until that time, modernism came out as a style in the Edwardian era that was much more sensitive to the modest budgets of homeowners building in the 20th century. Even Frank Lloyd Wright, whose career was famously independent of the vagaries of fashion, conceded that affordability was part of the appeal of his style – his “usonian” architecture  reveled in simplicity and he took low-budget commissions to prove that good design need not be cluttered with doodads.

Today, after a similar consumerist run-up, residential architecture is suffering from a similar hangover, as we recover from the granite countertops and carved stone lions of the pre-recession era.  These egregious displays of affluence may be gone for a long, long time. But people are still going about the business of adjusting their homes and businesses to suit their needs – and there is a steady microeconomy of residential and small commercial construction.

Cost, however, is the single overriding factor in most small projects today, and a focus on localism favors the budget.  For one thing, a region’s vernacular style usually responds best to the climate, and typically employs materials that can be locally sourced – no stone from Chinese quarries is necessary.  In Florida, for example, the vernacular style suspends the floor over a crawl space and includes deep roof eaves extending over the walls – both in response to the combination of harsh sun and heavy rains that task the building envelope.  The benefit of this style is lower construction cost (gone are all the elaborate carved woodworking pieces, the high rooflines with multiple dormers and turrets) and also lower energy costs. 

Other clients are waking up to the simple fact that contemporary architecture costs less.  Like the Edwardians before who developed a taste for the modern, owners building homes and additions in today’s economy have a newfound simplicity in their styles.  With a few choice materials around the entry, some simple, strong lines, and a restrained approach to details, contemporary architecture is making a comeback in the residential market.  Midcentury modern, a residential style all but forgotten in the McMansion era, was particularly suited to the returning GIs after World War 2 who desired a home but possessed the most modest of budgets.  This affordability is the key driving factor to the rise of this style, and is also a naturally “green” architectural style because of what it does without.    Modernist Mies Van Der Rohe’s dictum “less is more” can mean here that less ornament and fussy detailing means more money in the owner’s pocketbook at the end of the day.

Even more interestingly, house additions and remodeling still seems to exist in this economy.  Owners are taking advantage of the construction market’s reduced material costs, are building in more home offices, and enlarging their homes to accommodate a multigenerational lifestyle – parents living at home, or grown children living at home.  Larger family clusters within single residences point to reduced mobility, and an evolving, relatively easy re-densification of suburbs that have been winnowed by a plethora of empty nesters.

This new respect for budget has some naturally green outcomes, as families cluster together to save money and energy, and home offices save commuting.  By adapting a home in a budget conscious way, taking advantage of vernacular architecture and developing a taste for simple, clean design, many owners are unconsciously working with sustainable strategies already.  If sustainability means the preservation of future generation’s choices, then by conserving money and aggregating closer together, owners have already implemented their own sustainability policy.

Green design should be seen as a grassroots response to the local climate, rather than a prescriptive code forced down from above And it can produce a magnificent architecture in a timeless style.  No federal program or international design guru can impact this like the microeconomy; instead people are making pragmatic choices, and once again discovering that the local vernacular architecture has a lot of good, commonsense clues about how to live a sustainable lifestyle.

This article first appeared in The New Geography.

Richard T. Reep proposes solar garden for Winter Park

April 22, 2010 – The City of Winter Park received a proposal from Richard T. Reep, M. Arch. to provide a 1.5 megawatt solar garden on 5 acres at the corner of Denning Avenue and Morse Boulevard.  In response to a City Request for Information, this proposal will generate power for the City of Winter Park Electric Utility Department.

“The Solar Garden will improve the City’s energy independency, protect it from future rate increases, and be a showcase for the City’s commitment to sustainability,” stated Mr. Reep, who teaches Sustainable Development at Rollins College, and is an architect in Winter Park.

“We’re evaluating this idea carefully,” stated Procurement Manager Tony Durram, “and are looking at the benefits to the City.  Certainly something positive needs to be done with this site.”

At the corner of Denning and Morse, the City of Winter Park took ownership of the defunct McCarty office building last year.  The Community Redevelopment Agency sought ideas on how to redevelop the site, and Mr. Reep saw this opportunity to help the City achieve some of its goals.  The solar field will consist of a flat array of photovoltaic panels that track the sun, pivoting during the day.  In the southeast corner, where a stand of mature oak trees exists, Reep proposes a Renewable Energy Learning Center.  The solar panels will be screened along Denning with an ornamental hedge, but will be available to pedestrians as a quiet, cool extension of Denning Park to the south. 

Joining Reep is Novasol Energy, the provider of the solar array to be placed on the Rollins College Parking Garage on New England Avenue, and Harris Civil Engineers, the city’s Continuing Contracts Consultant for Civil Engineering.

Roan Lake House

On Lake Conway, the rustic Florida Vernacular style fits admirably
into the landscape.  Using natural, unpainted wood and brick, the
Lake House is an unpretentious, but carefully detailed jewel nestled
in the majestic oaks and tropical foliage of the lake edge.

The proportions of the lake house give it a classic and timeless
simplicity, enhanced by the use of natural materials.

The project began with little sketches like this:

The client, and carpenter Thomas Johnston, approved the design based on these sketches and a mutual love of Florida Vernacular Style.

Permit drawings were completed by John J. Reep, Architect, and the building was permitted with no revisions.

Urban Intrigues opens at Lake Eustis Museum of Art

Richard Reep’s Solo Exhibit Opens at Lake Eustis Museum of Art

May 13, 2010 – The Lake Eustis Museum of Art will host an opening reception for “Urban Intrigues,” a solo exhibition by Winter Park Artist Richard Reep.  The Museum is located at 200 B East Orange Avenue in Eustis, Florida.  The reception will be from 6-9pm and is free and open to the public.

“Richard Reep melds spirit, space, art and science into fine art imagined futures through painting, drawing and construction,” stated Curator Susan Loden, “and he translates the remains of our days into enduring, moving fine art images.”

Educated as an architect, Reep teaches urban futures at Rollins College, and explores related themes in his writing and art.  This will be his first solo exhibition since “Global Cooling”, where he posited a dystopian future in which civilization moves onto abandoned oil rigs, converting these majestic engineering feats into cities.   Urban Intrigues advances the theme as Reep finds spirit and beauty in discarded books and wood.

On Sunday, May 16, Reep will give a gallery talk about his work, describing the inspiration for the pieces and answering questions about the art.  This talk begins at 1pm and is free and open to the public.

“Though seemingly spontaneous and soothing, writes critic Egberto Almenas, “his compositions based on found objects capitalize on relationships that feel researched and densely packed with ideas.”  Reep’s environmental ethics come from his architecture practice, and he builds up layers using discarded objects and construction waste linking the art and architecture world on multiple levels.

For more information, contact Curator Susan Loden of Lake Eustis Museum of Art.  You may contact Ms. Loden by telephone at 352-483-2900, or via email at  lodensusan@gmail.com.

Contemporary Costs Less

Affordability is the most important criteria today in residential architecture.  Gone are the days when McMansions competed for lavish expenditures on exotic Tuscan stone or hand-wrought Victorian ornament.

Ornament is crime:  if you are considering a capital expenditure on a house, you are investing in the future.  Today’s construction costs aren’t any less than they were even a year ago, and in some areas have even increased.

Alex and Yin-Yin are smart, taking advantage of today’s low home prices, and they wanted an affordable dwelling that they can add to over time.  They have chosen to go contemporary while being sensitive to Florida’s unique climate:

High windows with deep overhangs let in daylight, but not the harsh sun, keeping lighting costs low during the day.

  • Elevating the first floor off the ground allows the house to breathe, and touch the earth lightly, reducing energy costs.
  • Flat roofs with white coating reflect heat instead of absorbing it, further reducing energy costs.
  • Drought-tolerant landscaping reduces their water bills, makes a lovely Florida yard, and keeps maintenance to a minimum.

Alex was fascinated with photovoltaic technology, and the flat roof lends itself admirably to a 7 kw array out of sight.  “During the day, while we are at work,” Alex says, “our meter spins backward.  Then, at night when we come home, we buy power like normal.”  Yin-Yin added, “We came back from a 10-day cruise, and to our delight, instead of a power bill, we actually got a check in the mail!”  With rebates and tax credits, solar power today is more affordable than ever.

Behind the walls, a cistern collects rainwater from the roof drains, and Yin-Yin uses this to water her garden.  “It’s great not having a sprinkler system,” she commented.  “In our last house, Alex was always out fixing busted pipes.  With this landscaping, we are saving money and time, and our yard looks lovely.”

Alex and Yin-Yin are both big fans of midcentury modern.  With a populuxe taste in furniture, their new home fits beautifully into their lifestyle.  The open floor plan is for a casual lifestyle; gone are the formal living room and dining room of their parents’ McMansions.

“We just loved working with Richard on our house design,” said Yin-Yin.  “He has a minor in psychology and we felt like he really listened to our ideas.  I think we probably changed our minds a lot more than he expected, but he was always gracious and really creative with our needs.”

“Richard’s optimism and love of the postwar era really jived with our taste,” smiled Alex.  “We hit it off immediately, and he seemed to get it.  We didn’t want to spend a fortune on a house – it’s just a house, after all – and we definitely didn’t want to pimp it up with a bunch of Tuscan nonsense.  These cool, clean lines really speak of Florida to me, and the dove gray exterior reflects so many different colors. ”

Alex and Yin-Yin are rediscovering residential architecture, taking the best of the fifties when houses weren’t cluttered with detail.  By integrating today’s technology to reduce their monthly bills, they are the owners of the future, with strong environmental values, making the house a statement about their lifestyle.