Thursday, September 28, 2017

Attack of the California Bungalow

Taking a swipe at suburbia by being positive elsewhere, I wanted give credit in this piece to a residential style that perhaps deserves a little more attention. What a defines a California Bungalow? I realize now I’ve liked the style without a complete understanding of its characteristics. Will this post be improved if I stray into long description of the style? Probably not. Because a more narrow focus might exclude examples of good design we can learn from. Instead, we counter the risk of over-generalization by being as critical as possible toward the topic in an effort to understand its appropriateness in the 21st century. Just to put some reasonable limits on the subject so we don’t end up in the forest, three characteristics of the style as discussed below: Minimal elevation changes within the site, a bright and airy interior, and post-and-beam construction. 

Addressing the most trivial characteristic of the bungalow first: I’m not so strict on it being totally flat simply because a couple of steps up or down can contribute a great deal to making the design better by helping distinguish between functional areas or solving other design problems. Also, using elevation changes within a  site in regards to landscaping can ultimately make the property more inviting, playing to the natural strengths of a site. There is something to be said, however, about a pure bungalow because users with mobility issues deserve good design too, and I feel this is a population that has been underserved. There is also the fact to consider that implementing a bungalow design is not the most efficient use space. And this feature absolutely needs to be balanced in terms of its appropriateness for sustainable design projects. There are strong arguments to be made that if one really cherished Nature, and the idea of Wilderness, that stacking people is a more effective way to keep tracks of ecologically sensitive areas open for future generations. The dim alternative is to only value a tree once it’s cut down, keep building for the love of freedom, and let anyone younger than a millennial learn about grizzly bears on Wikipedia. 

There are several attributes of the California Bungalow where its light and airy nature contributes to the substance of why this style is such good design. I’ve always been attracted to the Canadian versions of this style (which are known by different names), because I’ve found the quality of interior daylight to be superior than another suburban homes. The long overhangs and skylights make the interior bright, but also limit high contrast areas of direct sunlight which aggravate the eyes. The marketplace doesn’t always acknowledge this as an important quality-of-life factor, but once people live with a space that has excellent lighting design, they notice its absence more. Drawing a larger conclusion about how our neighbourhoods are designed, and how characteristics of Califorina bungalow design can contribute to sustainable development, requires us to go all the way to Japan. 

Japan’s suburbia looks very different. The houses are smaller to be sure, but Japanese suburbia shares winding roads in common with North America suburbia. The easiest thing to notice by visitors to Japanese suburbia is that all the houses are oriented toward the Sun no matter how the road is placed. Of course, the designers make an effort to create a workable front entrance, but North American suburbia effectively ignores the Sun. Goodness knows how many millions of tonnes of fuel were wasted because of this choice. Japan is not more progressive for orienting their structures toward the Sun, rather it’s a design element that never left their culture in the place. As pressure builds to reduce our carbon footprint, bungalows in a California style can leverage solar power in several ways if more carefully attention is paid to the path of the Sun throughout the day. 

Another factor to consider of the open spaces in California-style bungalows is their multifunctional nature. As we strive to raise the quality of our sustainable design projects, the importance we place on spaces catering to multiple roles needs to increase. Multi-functionality is a valuable quality. A random suburban home that has a feature popular in the marketplace when built, in many cases limits reuse for a different function in the future. A slightly more granular view argues designing efficient multifunctional spaces is  paramount to cost-effective and high-quality sustainable design. 

Lastly, we come to the post-and-beam construction many California bungalows utilize. Often this feature is faked with just a couple of timber beams accenting parts of the structure, but several of the projects highlighted in this piece ambitiously hunt for a full expression of post-and-beam architecture. Certainly this premium adds meaning to a structure. Gamble House in the arts-and-craft style, erected in 1929 in Pasadena, Califorina, is an early extravagant example which references many of the qualities that would later come to be associated with the Califorina Bungalow, especially its emphasis on the horizontal. One can dig even deeper into architectural history and draw out connections from Japanese timber architecture to California bungalows. Japanese wood joinery in architecture is probably the preeminent example of the expert execution of post-and-beam construction techniques, and it’s hard to fault home owners for not waiting years and paying handsomely for traditional Japanese carpentry. So it's with degree of acceptance we see faux versions of post-and-beam in modern bungalows as aesthetically a good thing.

Flavin Architects
This firm develops new designs and renovates old bungalows. Some of the glass walls featured are very dramatic; if, that is, one is predisposed to living with their draw backs. High performance glass is expensive and some people don’t like wearing clothes at home (who knew?). 

Malcolm Davis Architecture
This is an excellent modern interpretation of the Califorina bungalow featuring materials taken from the site itself. Located in San Francisco, its oriented toward the great views offered from the site and captures well the openness of a California bungalow. The reused timber looks amazing and the interior is so bright and airy it’s at risk of floating away. 

William Berkes and Robert Brownell
Super amazing house with great multifunctional spaces. This example is included to round out the category of bungalows showing they can indeed have elevation changes on site or in the design. This house on the East Coast has recently been renovated and I think was very successful at creating a timeless modern style.

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