It is said again and again in the recent decade: housing is the one major industry that has resisted disruption. In spite of the facts that material costs are all over the map; there is a severe labor shortage; buildings account for upwards of 30% of greenhouse gases; extraction, manufacturing, and construction carbon and waste are generally unaccounted for or to; and, there is a severe housing crisis for those having no home to those affording a house on a middle income. Yet the industry barely budges. Small residential projects and developer houses are built as they have been for centuries, with few innovations. Aren’t we done with this? I am.
Introducing the Poche_Truss (PatPend), an audacious disruptive innovation in residential construction. It is a low tech invention that sits right under our collective construction noses, embodied in the humble truss.
What is not to love? The thin profile of the structural frame and the spacious unfolding of setting them sequentially to magically create space. In my career it was inevitable that this humble construction strategy would take hold of my imagination. In 1997 I flipped the trusses upside down on the Shaffer house and never looked back.
A short two dozen years later, On January 22, 2021, a provisional patent was filed with the US Patent and Trademark Office: Wall Roof Truss Building System, Inventor: ml Robles. Presentations on this building system are ongoing.
Our first wee house in a backyard is done! #14 under Boulder’s revised ADU regulations. Its total cost, excluding land, in 2019-2020 was $190,600, at 540sf that translates to $353/sf.
Our second wee house in a backyard is under design. This one is substantially different. For one, lumber costs have more than doubled in cost and preliminary cost came in at almost $500/sf. A 41% overall increase! Plus – Boulder adopted the IECC’s 2018 energy conservation standards. But wait, there is more – COVID-19 happened and the city approval process is spiraling in excess and redundancy. Yikes. I, however, remain undeterred in building ADUs to change the way we make small houses and use our urban land. ADUforMe and Studio Points are making their way through all of this. We bring a solution to the table. Coming soon…the Poche_Truss!
The purpose of this forum is to give ADU users, owners, or builders a place to seek answers and find community. Although we see ADUs increasingly referenced these days, they are still somewhat of an enigma as some folks think of them as small versions of big houses or house versions of cheap condos; others see them as prefab boxes; others consider them high yield income options; others see them as opportunities to provide housing for many who might not get to live (or remain) in amenity rich neighborhoods. Essentially folks come to ADUs from many and varied perspectives. As an architect I defer to the notion that in providing site specific housing, there is no one-size solution. Single family house’s backyards are always specific sites and the owners’ needs and goals are going to differ across the spectrum of ADU owners. All that being noted, however, there are definitely many things all ADUs have in common. Size and backyards being two obvious ones. Having non-developer homeowners is another.
I will kick off the forum with my takes on the common ground:
ADU size: Where will all my stuff fit? is a common reaction to size. I can definitely feel the pain of one’s attachment to their stuff. You have to be uber awake to dodge the constant temptation to consume this or that, even in the grocery store we over purchase from a make-believe reality that we will hurry home and chop and dice and simmer and produce those picture perfect morsels. Truth is, we throw away one pound of food each day! It is supremely hard to back off from the consuming we have undertaken most of our lives. Yet read any of the stories of the ones who have escaped and are living a minimalist ideal. By hearing how those few are shedding the stuff and all the stress that comes from buying and living with it, we can feel an exquisite exhale. Now this is what I am interested in: losing the drive to buy, buy, buy and replacing it with empty. Just space, and light. This is the start of right sizing your ADU.
Backyards: used to be this is where most of our urban nature living took place, where we kids were free to imagine. Today’s backyards have been usurped by rarely used designer outdoor kitchens, electric pump activated babbling brooks, and manicured landscaping. No self-respecting kid would play ‘fort’ in those bushes, do kids even know how to play ‘fort’? It seems backyards are up for a revelation. Without getting into all the social justice issues of zoning, my take on backyards is that they are gems of nature waiting to be of use once more, waiting to burst us open with imagination. Hold on to that feeling and it will guide these backyard houses toward a right fit.
Non-Developer homeowner: changing regulations in cities and municipalities across the nation have hurled hundreds upon hundreds of homeowners upon the doorstep of building a small house in their backyard. Talk about lost! ADUs wobble like Jell-O as builders and bankers drool over an untapped market. The good news here is that most of the folks peering into the ADU market are gearing up at about the same speed. Will it be the profit-seeking developer or the game-changer agency or the one-by-one builder who will slide ahead and define the future of ADUs? If I am to believe in a right sized ADU of space and light guided to land in service of an emerging societal shift, then my two cents are with the game-changer. And I do not take the lost homeowner as truly lost but rather momentarily disoriented. Here is where my decades of architecture practice and studio teaching will guide. We may all be gearing up at the same speed, but the path I take cuts directly into a world where we will want to live.
What is an ADU? ADU: Accessory Dwelling Unit, backyard house, granny flat. ADUs are basically a second house on your single family property. They can be inside your existing house or stand alone as a separate house.
Where can I find out if my property can have an ADU? ADUs are subject to zoning law. In most states these are established by your local county or city. In California and New Hampshire the state has established base ADU regulations making them legal on every single-family property in the state, local government cannot deny them. You find out what your local ADU regulations are by checking with your local planning department, it might be your county or city. Some cities and private developers have set up very cool planning tools where you can check your property’s capacity for an ADU online.
What are some resources for getting ADU information? First place to check for resources will be your local planning department, this will lead you to the specific requirements for your property. There are also many non-profit agencies dedicated to ADUs as well as university programs. Additionally you can check online for local architects and builders who specialize in ADUs. When I provide ADUforMe presentations giving the general public basic how-to information, I announce them on my local Nextdoor. You could also try MeetUp. Coming soon, ADUforMe.com will provide a comprehensive resource for all things ADU, so save the link and be sure to check back as we launch.
ADUforMe ONLINE Forum will launch with our ADUforMe.com platform. In the meantime if you have an ADU relevant subject you would like to bring up, please leave a message and I will get back to you.
ADU for Me.com will be the platform for all things ADU. Looking to build one? Rent one? Find architects or builders who specialize in them? Just wondering how and what others are doing? ADU for Me.com will be the AirBnB for ADUs plus the HomeAdvisor of ADUs plus the NEXTDOOR for ADUs. Accessory Dwelling Units – aka ADUs – are swelling across the country and placing regular folks in the position of being a developer and landlord. ADU for Me.com is the resource to help successfully make those transitions. So, interspersed with the Good Design is Like That writing, you will find information about ADUforMe.com until that site gets launched. Pardon the dust.
ADUforMe Boulder – Do you wonder if you can have an ADU on your property and where it can be located and what size it can be? I can help find answers.
does housing need to be brave?, you might wonder. Do you remember the pressure
in high school to fit in? Or the challenge in your profession to do as everyone
else does? These days it seems that value has been found in making mistakes and
stepping outside the lines, essentially in following an untried path. Yet some
things, no matter the unconventional line you might be walking, some things
seem to be held in place with much deeper roots. Housing is one of those
things. To convince your neighbors or city council or even your spouse that
providing a place for a stranger to live in your backyard in a modest small
house is a good thing, can be an unexpected uphill battle. Most of us living in
desirable cities realize that the oft spoken housing crisis is quite real. Land
is valuable beyond what any of us imagined when we bought into our single
family houses decades ago. And population growth is not a far off phenomena
going on in lands far beyond our reach. This is going on right here, right now
with ever expanding consequences. And as I often have pointed out to my city
council, you would not know we were in the midst of a climate crisis to walk
through our city and see the smashing up of old structures and tipping them into
the landfill and the super sizing of new constructions with barely lip service
to green building much less renewable energy or regenerative practices.
the immediacy of climate change disrupt our patterns?
I like to think small. I like to think about the single things any one of us can do in our daily routines. Like recycle that can or bottle. Like walk or take a bike. Like turn off lights and grow native grass to reduce water use. Things we have heard a million times over the past decades, these should all be second nature by now, you think? I met a man at a political event just a day ago. As we got to talking something steered the conversation to recycling and I matter-of-factly acknowledged that we certainly would know that cardboard and wood are recyclable and reusable. His response shook my reality. He said, no, he did not recycle. Yes he lived in Boulder, yes he lived in an apartment building with massive recycle bins. But no, he did not recycle. That was for white people. SILENCE
How does this happen?
How is it that the consequences of our actions do not trickle upward to the
consequences for our planet? Do I recycle because it rocks my little green world
or do I recycle because I know that we live on a planet of finite resources
with a population explosion that is severely taxing the ability for this planet
to supply our growing needs? I saw that vulnerable little blue marble of a
planet in those photos from space. They made my heart swell as I thought of the
millions of creatures that make this home. It is nothing short of a miracle, that
this much life has arisen in ecological cooperation for billions of years. And in a couple of hundred years humans have
taken the path of dominating every other specie on the planet.
I return to
thinking small. Because that is where you and I can still see the wonder of
life. I practice architecture. And what I have noticed is that it is
increasingly difficult to include the word beauty and even sustainability into
the client conversation. I am convinced that the Internet has made us stupid. It
provides a means for untrained people to gain limited information about things
they truly know nothing about and cannot begin to know from a stroll on the
Internet. This may be nice for looking up facts like, what year was Elvis born?
But it is such a disservice to use it to educate yourself about how to make a
house or a space. It provides false understanding and closes you to the true
sources of a great house or a delightful space.
world we can still find many places to hide our heads in the sand. While you
are there, check out that gain of sand for it holds all the connections to
I see small houses that way. Although backyard houses are just bit players in the housing options, they are a key nexus that can nudge us to use less and to participate more and with good design, small houses can provoke us to feel our interconnection. That is no longer small, that is brave.
I had a family reunion in Austin this past weekend. And you know how reunions go, you are so involved with enjoying the get together you push other things to the back of your mind. Like visiting the loo.
I, however, had a loo – front and center in my mind.
Lady Bird Loo, Austin Texas, Mell Lawrence Architects, AustinBuildings need to work amazingly well. Ours do. They reflect a deep sense of place and life pattern. Mell Lawrence Architects, Austin
It was late morning on a hot and humid July day, typical for Austin. The Colorado River looked serene in its placid state of pale green and blue water. A cooling breeze seemed to drop the temperature to bearable as we walked the gravel trail along its bank.
Two awkward looking rusted steel structures came into view. I instantly recognized them from their published photos. They looked more shadow than structure as the tall steel sheets rose directly from the ground.
When you are on an architectural pilgrimage, no matter how humble, attention is moreso. I walked around the structures, peeking into the narrow gap between the steel panels and the concrete end wall, noting the carefully detailed clips that held the steel panels to the frame. The panels were already covered in rust, the intended end game of Corten steel that allows the natural salt and humidity to corrode its surface to a point of patina before further corrosion is inherently stopped. This rust felt almost dangerous as I carefully inspected the corrosion flakes.
I ran my hand along the board formed concrete end walls, feeling the wood grain and the concrete bits that leaked through, forming thin rough rows across the wall.
As I continued to walk around the buildings, sensing the tall and folding walls, I eventually realized that they were locked for maintenance. Actually, that had not in the least diminished my experience. The buildings were quite available as simple structures along a trail. Belonging to the site regardless of their use. Good design is like that.
Ansel Adams – that American icon of photography and champion for wild places. But he didn’t start out with the capacity to translate into his medium – photography – the power of wild places. It all began with the wild places lighting him up and then building within him an insatiable need to express those experiences. Like the time he stood before the tall granite wall in Yosemite and could not find peace until he uncovered a means to express the feeling.
If I feel something strongly I would make a photograph that would be the equivalent of what I saw and felt. Ansel Adams (American Experience: Ansel Adams)
‘A photograph that would be the equivalent’ to what he saw and felt, there is perhaps no greater challenge to those of us who make things than the leaps we must take to embed into the work the profound sensations that we have experienced but cannot explain except by provoking them through our work. As the career of photographer Ansel Adams attests, artists must stand on that fine line where on one side normalcy and usual perception prevail while the other side touches the abyss where infinity whispers.
I trust the first impression, the initial glance at an image seems to reveal its inherent qualities. Ansel Adams (Ansel Adams, an autobiography)
Adams professed a process he called the Zone System which commenced with an intuition-driven visualization where excitement and perception held him to account. He accordingly set his camera, with the vision in mind, to capture the sensations he experienced – using his framework of camera exposures to capture areas of different luminance in the subject, each related to exposure zones and these in turn to approximate values of grey in the final print. He was a master of light and he bade the camera to do his bidding as he tuned the exposures to grant him the qualities that would explode through his pictures.
I am interested in expressing something that is built up from what is within rather than this extraction from without. Ansel Adams (American Experience: Ansel Adams)
It is impossible – totally and utterly impossible – to make anything of any consequence without having had that profound and altering experience in knowing the thing you are attempting to translate. Detachment is not an option, you must hold an intimacy of excruciating vulnerability to first have the experience and then, to believe it, you must be courageous because as an artist it will be your job to provoke that profound experience. This is the consequence of stepping into the realms that cannot be explained: we are haunted to bring back the bits and to make portals that guide back to their source.
Architecture knows no other means for manifestation. Do not be fooled by the computer renditions, it is from the hand that the charge of the sublime must flow. Adams developed and used his Zone system in such a way that the camera was altered to reveal what he saw not what the mechanics of its predisposition proposed. As in computer drafting/design – the machine has a predisposition that lulls you into its reality. My design process is surprisingly akin to what Adams devised, it begins with almost meditative intuitive hits about the land and program (this is where I make power-filled little models that hold the gesture – the fullness of the experience) and then I make geo maps and physical models – lots and lots of them – to capture the areas of different luminance – each related to material and scale and sitting. The building sections and plans toggle back and forth and in turn develop into details and constructions. I hold the original intuitions as a reference throughout the design even as construction materializes. That initial seeing holds the inherent qualities that will become the architecture.
We all move on the fringes of eternity and are sometimes granted vistas through the fabric of illusion. (Ansel Adams, an autobiography)
Do not even for a blink suppose that the creative life is other than this. We must hone our ability to see through the fabric of illusion if we are to make good design.
Some of you might have noticed, although shifts in society seem to happen so slow they are hard to notice, that housing has become not only a low to no income issue, it has hit the middle income. It is actually identified as a crisis in most major cities in the US. The shameful housing crash of 2008 should have guided us to a course correction in housing and not just in lending. But it didn’t, not really. Builders continue to churn out cheap mass housing, cities continue to allow speculation on land that drives up premium real estate in amenity-rich neighborhoods, and houses remain big as do mortgages. The lenders and the builders make money, the people go into debt and begin to dream about being free from all the stuff and the mortgage they had thought necessary for happiness. Stuff and a big mortgage are necessary for the lenders’ and builders’ happiness. Meanwhile the people dream about doing work that is satisfying not just providing a paycheck, they dream about freedom to travel and learn and experience and live the life they choose. The dream shows up on blogs and travel diaries and YouTube videos. And the dream has shown up in tiny houses and ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Unit – second small houses on a single family lot). Places where the owner is in charge to make the sort of house they want to live in and to support the life they want to be in.
I have been dreaming about small houses. I am one of those hundreds of thousands who has lived in a city I love for decades while the real estate industry crept in with its speculative for-profit goals, eroding so much of the original fabric and shooting up land value and property taxes. The uber-rich are buying up all the good stuff, but I don’t want to sell my good stuff and fade quietly into the setting sun. I want to fan the dream of a vibrant community and small houses for intentional simple living. I want what the Boomers want, I want what the Millennials want, I want what the wealthy think they have and what those with little know they have. I want to live my one wild and precious life with intention, every day not just on weekends or while on holiday. I want to cast off all the things that society (read capitalism) has deemed necessary for a good life. No, I will not refinance in order to get that new car; or pull out a credit card for the must-have new shoes. Sorry merchants, you will have to make your fortunes on some other back. I will continue to reject cheap goods over human or environmental rights to wellbeing. It is time the housing industry took a tumble toward the people. I have been dreaming about small houses and everything they foretell.
My adventure to realize this dream begins as all good design does, by unearthing what exists. By listening. Beside my house in one of Boulder’s most sought after neighborhoods (I was here before it was deemed so and when the houses were mostly 800 square feet) stands what used to be a two-car garage. In the 1980’s I converted the unused garage into my architecture studio.
26 years later, the world has changed and that 480 square feet should have a higher purpose. It is heading toward becoming a small house. And it will get there by very unconventional means… I will not demolish nor will I build as big as I am allowed. I will reuse and reconfigure to create a remarkable small house that will go forth and tip housing toward people and the world we want to inhabit.
I emptied the studio except for a few vital pieces. There are the lamps I made from the Mylar I had drafted projects onto; there is the tufted faux leather minimalist sofa acquired on Craigslist for $60; and there is the skinny oak table eighteen feet long reclaimed when CU’s art school moved and they were tipping all the furniture into the dumpster. These pieces, all reclaimed from a former life, sit confidently in the space, knowing that in my studio things do not get thrown away. Good design is like that.
I lay on the cool concrete floor and dream, empty feels so very very good.
The alessi 9091 kettle designed by Richard Sapper is beyond beautiful… it sings, it shines, it boils water and it gets better with age…
Launched by Italian brand Alessi in 1982, the kettle features two whistles, each tuned to a different note, so that a harmony is produced when water in the kettle boils. Richard Sapper was a German designer and the story goes that Black forest craftsmen used a small pipe (pitch pipe) to tune musical instruments as the pipes produced the perfect note. Sapper took this lead and designed the small pitch pipes into the kettle whistle that is made from gold plated brass.
I purchased my 9091 kettle shortly after they were released in 1982. I love a cup of hot steamy tea – even in the summer. There is something transcending about immersing my senses into a just filled hot cup. Being an architect, I also love beautiful things.
In the thirty plus years of use, the first thing to vanish – about a decade in – was the little rubber grip on the spout pull. I was told by the house sitter that “it just popped off”, never to be seen again. OK. So I got used to using a potholder to pull the spout. Then the plastic handle cover slowly started to melt away at the bottom, like a Dali painting. I tried to clean it up but eventually a majority of the plastic was just gone and one day it was down to bare metal. Definitely had to use the pot holder now. On a recent birthday, my husband announced that he was going to refurbish the kettle and replace the parts that had been lost in time. I was having nothing to do with that. The kettle had come into its own. Like a great old building, it was losing unessential parts and becoming more of its essence. I loved the patina and clean lines. I believe the kettle has purposefully discarded everything that did not serve and is aging with elegance. Good design is like that.
There is something truly inspiring about well-made buildings that belong in their place on the planet; whose little details build up to something far, far grander than merely sensible solutions to enclosure. Glenn Murcutt is a master whose work can make you want to just sit down and cry it is so sublimely beautiful. Good design is like that.
The triple layer wall, a neat logic to deal with the specific climatic conditions of eastern Australia:
-operable glass through which to sail the breezes
-insect screens to stop the little buggers
-aluminum venetian blinds that direct solar gain, views, and privacy
The walls are exemplary of place-based detailing but then, there is the soaring roof overhang feathering into the vastness of the site and there is the ground dropping away below to keep you from harm’s way. The design connects powerfully to its landscape: to its specific site, to the climate, to the memory of the indigenous shelters and it all tingles through you, anchoring you squarely in the Australian landscape.
Its beauty is undeniable for it is sourced in what Julene Bair astutely observed in Ogallala Road: “Our sense of beauty is a survival instinct telling us that a place can sustain us.” The work puts an entirely new spin on sustainable design, oh wait – good design is not about a spin. It is the result of deep observation, intentional experience, and profound connection. You need to have skin in the game, only then do you get to make something that sends shivers up your spine.
You won’t find a Glenn Murcutt web site, facebook or any such online presence. You won’t find him using CAD of any sort. What you do find is an incredible human being pressing his innate sensibilities, talent, and wisdom into making deceptively simple buildings that humbly do their job: they sustain their place in the world and the people who inhabit them. That is Architecture at its base core root. Thank you Glenn.