today's ramble about building materials...

Lately I’ve been asking myself why I keep trying to write about design, and the answer is probably as simple as ‘I don’t have clients asking me to build these things, so I may as well write about it!’ I hope that as a side benefit, the process of putting the words on paper - even if no one reads it - will help my ideas to begin to gel and refine themselves. That’s the creative process, after all, right? Even now as I type THIS post, I have more ideas of posts I want to follow it with, so maybe that’s my brain saying it’s ready to really start putting stuff out there. It’s been on the ‘loud static’ setting for a long time, putting out an overstuffed jumble of millions of thoughts, germinating lots of ideas but not producing much fruit.

SO today, let’s start with a topic that really has rubbed me raw, mentally, for the last couple years or so. For so long, I never thought i’d have a chance to build a ‘dream house’ or even some sort of experimental design opus of sorts - it just never entered my radar as a real possibility. After all, at a minimum that usually requires a large supply of cash, which can be hard to come by. A couple of years ago, we did manage to find a nice lot to purchase and decided to go for it. It was a forgotten little piece of land, that looked suspicious both for its location near flood-prone lots and the fact that it required an easement to get to it. We figured it was just in need of a little investigation, and it turned out to be high and dry with good, buildable soil and a properly vacated easement. So we bought it. All that was required next was to sell our house…. Fast forward 2 years and 3 agents later (including myself) and I think the For Sale sign in the yard disintegrated from neglect a couple weeks ago, like a plant that no one waters or makes encouraging small talk with, as the market continued its throwback to 2008 and the local buyer pool continued a fascination with white and gray houses and crown molding. Now the problem is that the cat is out of the bag - I’ve spent 2 years plotting and planning my escape from what we thought was a house other people would like. I’ve been following dozens of firms that are designing in the milieu that I feel drawn to (ha! archi-pun...). I’ve researched materials and details and sketched my own versions. My husband and I trade photos of designs we find and we argue over which views from the lot should be framed in the mornings vs. afternoons. Add to that the pressure I feel that results from my own naiveté at the time we built this house regarding what ‘other people’ would eventually like, and also regarding what actually mattered to me in a space I reside in. I had very little true design experience at the time, I had 2 toddlers, and had only every worked on other people’s projects. It never occurred to me to spend time doubling down on what I found to be so poetic in my college education, and demand that it come off the page and onto the soil. I believed the environs directly around me to be my only options, and that is another big regret I have. For the moment, we’ve decided to adjust this house to fit our functional needs, and put some effort into designing a house ‘for the market’ on that lot that was supposed to be ours. Doing that has rubbed raw the blisters I developed about conventional construction, and I think I need to write about it to purge myself.

A good place to start, it would seem, is the little things. The tangible ‘features’ that I see around me are easy enough to use as examples of my theories regarding materials, so I took some photos in my house that might make my points easier to communicate. Currently, I like to muse about efficiency and simplicity, whether it’s household spending, reducing plastics, simplifying consumption, and especially building materials. If I stay true to that angle, you will want to seek solutions that succeed without requiring lots of steps and extra embellishments - materials that come together in a way that each piece is celebrated in its individuality, while at the same time makes the collaboration more successful. Think of the building materials in a house as you might the cast of a movie or tv show - their chemistry can take a simple plot line and turn it into an utter delight to watch and an escape from a stressful day. (we may or may not have teenagers that watch The Office on a constant loop around here). A cast that doesn’t gel eventually results in confused looks from viewers and changed channels, even if the first impression seemed pretty good.

If you’ve ever gotten your hands a little bit dirty with DIY projects, painting your house, fixing a wall that leaked, etc., you know about drywall. It’s the main villain in this cast of characters, and not only because it’s malleable nature lulls people into a false sense of dependency on it, but also because it detracts from everything that meets up with it. It’s like sensitive skin that flames up with excema whenever it touches anything. I used to think it was such a boon to home building - it’s not made of dead trees, it can be cut easily to any size, it’s easy to patch and repair, and sanding it is such a zen activity. However, when you look at how it has a stranglehold on our homes, you see how it’s basically holding us all hostage from making more beautiful buildings. You cannot adjoin ANYTHING to drywall without ruining a perfectly good edge. It tells the story of every badly patched ding and dent, and reveals the crimes of not noticing the sheen on the can of touchup paint you bought 5 years later. Every time it meets another material, you have to cover the joint with layers of trim, which then require another layer of caulk to clean up this new set of edges. Even the best painter and carpenter can’t make all the edges clean and the best painter’s tape in the world will still allow bleed, which means you have to go back and touch up all those trimmed and caulked and sanded joints and repairs and cover-ups. It’s absolute madness, really. The wall trim might be made of gorgeous wood moldings, however people insist on painted wood trim these days, so the joint and the paint edges at the drywall diminish the marriage of materials. The bathroom floor tile might be stunning and elegant, but to meet the drywall walls, you have to cover the base of the wall with trim, which leaves gaps at the tile grout joints, and then you have to caulk that and paint it, etc etc etc. I can see a time and place for drywall as a stand-alone partition, or for temporary walls, or anywhere it doesn't’ directly touch another surface. It also takes paint incredibly well, so i’m sure i’d use it in a place where I need a simple color accent wall, or a place to hang art, but still. Even as I read that sentence as I proofread, I knit my eyebrows and think to myself ‘can't you be more creative? why not stone/concrete/wood/plywood/brick/tile/reclaimed walls? think it through!’

Consider what happens, then, if you focus your efforts on assembling materials that sing in harmony when they come together. Let’s reserve adhesives and silicons and caulk for keeping the water out, and join the walls/floors/roof/finishes in a way that highlights the best qualities of each item. Solid wood, stone, bricks, glass, even tile, they all have one interesting quality in common, that they don’t have a ‘bad’ side or edge that needs to be hidden. You can join them together at any angle and not have to cover up the joint with another set of materials or spackle - you just let them ‘be’. Along that vein, why put in a false ceiling just to make the ceiling ‘flat’, when the roof isn't flat? If you start thinking this way, it can start a spiral of questioning realities as specific as 'why are electrical outlets all so ugly and white and conspicuous?’ or ‘why do we punch window holes in a wall that is supposed to be holding up the roof, when we can support the roof in a way that doesn't require walls?’ It makes my head spin, for sure, worrying about all these caveats - I really can’t help it though. Once you realize something that has always been done doesn’t have to continue to be done, it opens up a world of temptation. I also wonder why the experimentation and embrace of new materials that overtook the nation back in the 1950’s has faded away so remarkably in residential design. Whole subdivisions all over the US were built using new aesthetics, materials, floor plans, and general theories about what a house should be and how we use our spaces. But after a couple decades of ‘midcentury modern’ incarnations, Instead of evolving, mass-market housing took a hard turn away from progress and went firmly into fake new versions of old styles. Everything from ‘Colonial’ to ‘Georgian’ to 'Plantation’ - temples to comfort food in built form, full of drywall, empty attics, and 8’ ceilings. I’m left scratching my head at that, for sure.

The problem of what to do with my house is a tricky one. The photos obviously reveal a mix of drywall mess, but also harmonious materials here and there. Finding the line in the sand of where to fix it and where to leave it alone is a task I haven’t figured out how to complete yet. A sledgehammer and a saws-all and a suitcase full of cash would be a good way to start, though. I think this could house could really find its harmony still, and then I might not notice that it doesn’t have a proper woodshop, a 4 car garage, and a 1/2 acre garden…..