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Monday, April 28, 2008

Book Review: Two Residential Titles

Modern Shoestring: Contemporary Architecture on a Budget by Susanna Sirefman
Essence of Home: Timeless Elements of Design by Liesl Geiger

It's difficult to underestimate the importance of single-family houses in contemporary architecture. They provide a launching pad for young architects, pepper the monographs of most well-known architects, and are the focus of most media (print or online) focused on the built environment. These two books published by Monacelli Press approach this area in two different but highly specific ways: looking at houses with small budgets and seeing from the client's perspective.
The title Modern Shoestring clearly indicates author Susanna Sirefman's assertion that modern-with-a-capital-M architecture need not be unaffordable. Presenting 18 houses in the United States in order of per-square -foot costs -- from $51 to $220 -- the book is high on variety, be it context, materiality, or formal and technical solutions. The two projects that start the book -- Urs Peter Flueckinger's own house in Lubbock, Texas and Salmela Architect's Keel Cabin in Minnesota -- illustrate the creativity required to achieve costs under $100/sf, be it using corrugated siding and other cheap materials or designing around a collection of bargain-basement windows, respectively. Not surprisingly, one finds the creativity extending to the construction, be it by the client's hand, by an undergraduate class, or by a commercial contractor (instead of a costlier residential one).
Compared to a similar-minded book like Cost-Effective Buildings, this book is more eye candy and inspiration than technical details and occasional theory for architects. The text here is slim, but, unlike far too many books on residential architecture these days, the numerous photographs are accompanied by floor plans and the occasional building section. Ultimately this sort of book is measured by the quality assembled around its theme. Modern Shoestring illustrates that quality not only occurs frequently at a lower budget but that it also comes out of the budget constraints that architects, while they might not admit to liking them, are as much inspiration as site, program, and client.

This last piece, the client, brings us to Liesl Geiger's Essence of Home, a book whose subtitle "Timeless Elements of Design" could also be "How to Build a Better Client." The author acknowledges that the best-designed commissions occur when the architect and the client work together. Architects might joke or express frustration when a client is too demanding or too opinionated, but one who is the polar opposite is surely no better. Given that the client must live in the architect's creation for (hopefully) a long, long time, the relationship between the two must be a constant back and forth where the client's wishes are interpreted by the architect's expertise, and where the latter offers ideas the former might not have ever known or even considered.
From signing a contract with the architect to moving into the house, the two parties spend anywhere potentially years working towards the goal of a well-designed house. In that time the architect could be said to have the upper hand, presenting ideas via the material of his or her training: sketches, drawings, models, and renderings. Clients must try to envision the final product and how well it will work for their lives, and that 's where this book finds its raison d'etre. Reading this book as an architect is to relive the early years of undergraduate education, but reading it as a client is to be more prepared for the long process ahead. Geiger intersperses her text with a number of "case studies" by a variety of architects, though the neo-Modern predominates here as much as in Shoestring. But unlike that book, budgets are the least of concern, be it in the examples of or the author's text; her discussion of "site and scale" sounds like its geared for those with acres of land, not a fraction of an acre. While squarely aimed at the client willing to pay more than $220/sf, the book nevertheless revels in the small, the intimate, those things shared by clients of all budgets.

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