The Importance of Napkin Sketches

Designers are creative beings who can easily find inspiration at any moment. A napkin sketch is an elemental expression of thought. Napkin sketches have been a go-to companion for those who find spur of the moment inspiration allowing for the exploration of thoughts and ideas with their hands. You can express primal feelings, a memory, even a philosophy. It’s a telling exercise about how people think, what is important to them, and the spirit of their thoughts. These little pieces of paper displaying ideas can eventually be turned into greater works of art.

My napkin sketch illustrates a series of walls and shading devices, forming a puzzle of sorts, allowing the clients to roam, repose in the shade, or recline in the sun. Should the idea be approved, my future sketches will be more refined, adding fur (landscape material), color, texture, seating, and a possible sculpture.


A Perspective on Perspective

A good architecture drawing is a joy to behold. Since I was a child, I have lost myself in the intricacies of perspectives, sections, and, later on, axonometrics, isometrics, sectional perspectives, worm’s eye views, collage facades, and all the other ways architecture appears as a pure image. In recent years, the possibilities have expanded because of computer-assisted or -driven visualization technologies. This has led to an ongoing debate about the nature and future of drawings in an age when representations can appear with little assist of human hands. One of my students, Sol Edelman, went so far recently as to accuse me of trying to force him to make drawings “that don’t show the truth and are not how we see the world anymore." Stunned, I retreated to my den to peruse with great pleasure Nalina Moses’ Single-Handedly: Contemporary Architects Draw by Hand, recently published by Princeton Architectural Press—but not before pointing out that computer renderings can lie with the best of them; and, by the way, just get over it and show me the design in a way that makes sense.

I remain astonished that the debate about “hand drawing” (which means, I guess, manipulating a pencil, pen, or brush, along with a Mayline, a triangle, and whatever tools are around) versus “computer drawings” (meaning visualizations produced through computer programs) rages on. Who cares? Is one better than the other? Should we be sad about the loss of ink wash perspectives? Or of plans drawn on parchment? Some architects—most notably the venerable Juhani Pallasmaa—have argued that we are losing some direct connection between the brain and our designs because we are not using our hands, which seems absurd to me. Others have argued that the speed and the shortcuts built into computer-assisted visualization means we don’t pay as much attention to what we are doing. That seems a valid point, but you could blame the demands for speed created by the rationalization of the workplace and economic pressures, as well as the distractions of daily life, for that as well. Finally, there is the notion put forward by some blog writers that default techniques, such as “[t]he ease of spinning 3D models around has led to the new normal being aerial views dramatically displaying the building rather than describing the user experience...” That, in turn, has led to a predominance of images that are neither analytical nor allow you to understand the complex relations between sequences of spaces interrupted by structure. It also might make it difficult, as you are designing, to understand the relationship of one space to another, to light, to use, and to all the other factors that make up the “reality” of a building.

Moses, a New York-based architect and writer who has compiled work from 41 architects in Single-Handedly, makes the point that drawing is also a way that architects can evoke the mood or organization of a building with a quick sketch or reveal relations with a clever composition. The book’s production values could have been a bit higher, and the graphic design should have been better, but the final chapters, where Moses has placed the more speculative images, nevertheless lift it to the realm of being a printed paean to experimental architecture—and to the possibilities of hand drawing.

There is always the danger, of course, that my perspective is itself warped. After my student Edelman's tirade against drawing, I asked Eddie Jones, AIA, who was visiting us at the School of Architecture at Taliesin, to remind us how even the simple act of drawing a plan by hand can evoke particular qualities that disappear in renderings. Laying a piece of “flimsy” or tracing paper over the student’s printed plan, he slid his bar, twirled his pencil, and rotated his triangles around to show how a different line weight or the abstraction of a toilet stall can communicate so much more than a computer drawing. We were suitably in awe. Edelman’s reaction? Two days later he showed up with computer-drawn sectional perspective, its surfaces manipulated to appear as if they were drawn by hand. It was quite good for a first-year student, and gave me hope that, no matter how you draw, the ability to evoke the possibilities of architecture in representation is alive and well.

by Aaron Betsky

Mixed Use Concept, Colley Ave, Norfolk, VA

Mixed Use Concept, Colley Ave, Norfolk, VA

Amazon sells out of $105,000 three-bedroom houses

If you were planning on getting the $105,000 three-bedroom home Amazon started selling in recent months, you’re too late. It’s sold out.

“We don't know when or if this item will be back in stock,” the retailer says on the webpage for “Cliff - Premium Prefabricated Modular House.” The manufacturer, Q-haus, located in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, in northern Europe, said there's a backlog of orders.

"The queue is long at the moment," Reino Soots, CEO of Q-haus, told HousingWire. "Of course, it takes time to fulfill the orders."

Cabins and garden houses have been available on Amazon for years, but the Cliff house is among the largest the retailer has offered. In addition to three bedrooms, the home has an open kitchen, dining room, and even a sauna. The assembly takes two days and requires two skilled workers, the company said in the Q&A section of the listing. And, a warning about the architectural style: If you don't like modern architecture, you might not like this house. 

“Cliff is a modular house perfect for accommodation for friends and family members overnight,” the Amazon description says. “It also can successfully be used to accommodate larger groups of people in ski-resorts or rent the units out in Airbnb, or as a private lake-house for romantic weekends. These modular houses are suitable in different climate areas all around the world. The idea of a Cliff is to offer more space with smaller measurements of the building with taking advantage of a smart-home technology for a more eco-friendly approach.”

The cost doesn’t include the land or a foundation, which the buyer has to have ready before assembling the house. And, of course, there are additional costs to consider that are not mentioned in the product descriptions, like utility hookups or, if you live in a cooler climate, insulation. It comes with appliances, utilities and some furnishings. There’s an option for one or two bathrooms, the Amazon description says.

The prefab, modular housing industry is growing, with revenue jumping 8.6% from 2013 to 2018, according to data from IBISWorld, including a 4.1% spike in 2018 alone.

Chris Schapdick, author of The Joy of Tiny House Living, said a lack of housing affordability is giving rise to alternative options, fueling the tiny house movement.

“Whether it's prefab or some other solution, there is a huge appetite for alternatives to traditional housing,” he said.

If you’re kicking yourself for missing out on the Cliff house, just type “prefab house” into Amazon’s search line. You’ll find smaller, and cheaper, alternatives like the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit for $33,990, or the Timber House for $75,000. Both are in stock.

Kathleen Howley

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Smart Contract

The contract of the future could be a blockchain-verified digital document with embedded, executable code

Although blockchain is best known in connection with Bitcoin cryptocurrency, it’s an electronic system that can be applied in many ways. Some commentators use the analogy, “Blockchain is to currency as the Internet is to email,” and it seems likely that some of those blockchain applications are likely to disrupt businesses of all kinds, including remodeling. 

The compelling feature of blockchain is that it decentralizes management of transactions, allowing people and businesses to interact without the need for an intermediary. It’s also uniquely secure because record-keeping is distributed across a large number of anonymous individuals. Every “block” of records in the “chain” is sealed against edits in a way that refers to the previous block, and only blocks that match can be sealed (non-matching blocks are discarded). That means a hacker would have to break the encryption for not just one block but for every previous block in the chain. Thus, a smart contract recorded by a blockchain would be rock solid.

Other than cryptocurrency, examples of practical blockchain applications are long on promise and short on detail, and even so-called nontechnical descriptions are vague and way more math-based than my brief description. 

One example that caught my attention, however, is something called a smart contract, which consists of a digital document containing code that executes automatically when certain specified conditions are met. I haven’t yet found anyone who’s currently using one, but as it happens, I am personally engaged in a transaction where I think a smart contract administrated by a blockchain would be just the ticket.

Sal Alfano

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How Long Before 3D Printing Disrupts Construction?

AI SpaceFactory is one of a handful of ambitious startups now pushing forward with 3D printing technology to print buildings using some form of additive material, usually a cement-based mixture. The printers, mounted on robotic arms and gantries, trace the pattern of a building’s walls and squirt out material one thin layer at a time, based on the digital design files driving them, while pausing to create gaps where windows and doors are added later. When one layer is completed around the entire perimeter, the printer starts on the next one.

Claims of printing entire buildings in a day or less abound. Austin, Texas-based ICON, producer of a 33-foot-wide, 3,800-pound printer it calls the Vulcan II, printed a 350-square foot home on-site in 47 nonconsecutive hours for less than $10,000 in materials last year. Another firm, China’s WinSun, has used its factory-housed printer to spit out manufactured sections of buildings to be assembled on-site, including a five-story apartment building, and claims to have printed 10 houses in a single day. At the beginning of 2018, Boston Consulting Group counted fewer than 40 completed 3D-printed structures worldwide, a number that has continued to climb since.

With all the activity that’s happening in the space currently, proponents of 3D printing technology in construction are confident not only that the trend will continue but that its use is already more prevalent than commonly perceived.

by Joe Bousquin

First permitted 3D-printed home

First permitted 3D-printed home

Shifts in Home Design and Material Demand

Designs That Shift Building Material Demand

Rapidly changing new home designs have surprised building product company executives who have not been speaking directly with the home building community. The pronounced home builder shift to fewer rooms and more open space living has reduced finished wall space per sq ft by 8% over the last decade. These design trends also include great rooms and indoor/outdoor spaces with large retractable glass doors.

  • The beneficiaries. Several window companies as well as the makers of outdoor remodel products and engineered wood beams have benefited greatly from the shift.

  • Damaged industries. Some drywall, paint, and baseboard company executives apparently missed this shift, despite its coverage by the industry media. Our most disappointing anecdote was a meeting we had last year with the head of R&D at one of these firms who couldn’t even name one of the large production architect companies in the industry.

Building product improvements over time have reduced replacement demand, as products are lasting longer than they used to. Roofing is one of the best examples. Roofs now last 7–8 years longer than they did 20 years ago, yet roofing companies and their investors have been modeling replacement demand as if the superior product didn’t matter. There are many more examples of products that will last longer before needing replacement or repair, including flooring, lighting, and composite products.

Todd Tomalak

Modern Great Room

Modern Great Room


The Minus One is a breakthrough in conception, technology and design. An architectural lighting solution with a visible aperture of less than half an inch (10mm), the Minus produces a discrete lighting effect virtually glare free through proprietary lens technology. Powered by a single high-performance LED, the Minus One produces an output of over 1000 lumens from source and requires less than one inch (25mm) of ceiling recess, allowing for great flexibility in new and retrofit construction.

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Bathroom’s Most Wanted

Linen closets are the most-desired feature in a master bathroom for homebuyers, according to new survey data from the National Association of Home Builders.

Approximately 78 percent of homebuyer respondents in the NAHB’s 2019 What Home Buyers Really Want report say that a linen closet in the master bathroom is desirable or an essential feature. Having "both a shower stall and tub in the master bath," and having a double vanity were both home features that at least 70 percent of survey respondents said were desirable or a must-have. These two features each garnered 32 percent "must-have" scores, the highest in the study.

Never Short On Space

Home prices are high, inventories are shallow, and personal savings are rising, which is leading everyone to say 2019 is the year of remodeling. People are choosing to stay in their homes and elevate the space, rather than sell it and buy a new one.

Built-in storage is a reflection of that – today’s designs demand less clutter without sacrificing space. It’s a real challenge, because storage itself takes up room, and so to have one without the other would initially seem paradoxical. Done right, built-in features can bridge the gap between saving space and creating storage.

Pro Remodeler

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What Worries a Billionaire Today? Protecting Priceless Art From Flying Champagne Corks on Their Superyachts

A new course teaches crew members how to care for blue-chip art collections on the high seas.

How do you protect your blue-chip art on board a yacht? It’s a problem only the privileged few face, but it’s apparently a growing problem nonetheless.

The British billionaire collector Joe Lewis reportedly keep Francis Bacon’s Triptych (1974-77) aboard his yacht, docked in London, while the deputy prime minister of the UAE, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, is thought to keep several hundred works of art on his, according to Bloomberg

So what do they do when a wayward champagne cork flies or some seawater splashes aboard? That’s where art historian and conservator Pandora Mather-Lees comes in. Mather-Lees told the Guardian that she first set out to help billionaires properly store art on their boats after getting a call from a collector whose prized $110.5 millionJean-Michel Basquiat painting was damaged while on his yacht.

“His kids had thrown their cornflakes at it over breakfast because they thought it was scary,” she told the Guardian. “And the crew had made the damage worse by wiping them off the painting.”

In response, Mather-Lees started offering a specialized course (which costs €295 per day) for yacht crew members. Crews are often well-equipped to deal with an array nautical situations, but not art conservation. In the case of her client, the crew “had no idea [the Basquiat] was worth many millions,” she told the paper. “Now the rich are increasingly bringing their art collections on board their yachts and it’s vital that captains and crew know how to care for these pieces.”

Yachts don’t have to be hostile environments for art, however. “Something people always say to me is ‘why on earth would you carry art on yachts?’” National Maritime Museum conservator Helen Robertson told the Guardian. Modern superyachts are packed with technology and “can be very controllable. Systems for temperature and humidity can surpass those you would find in galleries.”

Henri Neuendorf, February 4, 2019