Thursday, November 11, 2010

Kamal Amin House In Marion, Virginia

In early August, I was on a trip that took me down Interstate 81 South of Blacksburg, VA. There lies the town of Marion. I had heard from my friend David Milstead about an interesting house there, and managed to find it.

The house was designed in 1976 by Architect Kamal Amin. Amin is from Egypt, and graduated from the University of Cairo in 1951. He then came to the United States and apprenticed under Frank Lloyd Wright from 1951-1959, and continued on with the Taliesin Fellowship until 1977. Amin has practiced both architecture and structural engineering during his career. More can be found on Mr. Amin here:

I understand that the original owners have passed away, and the son now owns the home and is renovating and planning to put it on the market. Unfortunately, no one was home at the time I stopped by, so I can only show the exterior here. Definitely an interesting house. I understand that there is another Amin structure on US 211 north of Luray. I hope to stop by there in a few weeks.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Comments After the Event

It has been over a month, but I am finally getting around to writing about how the movie and discussion went at Mockingbird back in September (see the previous post). I think it is safe to say the the movie was disappointing. The project was a show house for a major homebuilder, and will be mainly used to burnish their "green" credentials. The savvy Staunton crowd at Mockingbird was not taken in by it, however. The reaction was very critical. The project did not have sustainability at its heart. Instead, it continued a well-worn pattern of excess and pandering under a thin veneer of green.

The discussion after the movie made this opinion clear. Those of us on the panel concurred, and if anything were not as harsh in our evaluations as some in the audience were. The discussion itself went very well. I think we were able to address real issues of sustainability, resources, methods, etc. We tackled questions about being green and dealing with historic structures. We talked about new technologies and new products. Lastly, after the formal talk, a number of people came up to look at the drawings I posted in the previous entry. I think the reaction to all of this was positive.

The thing I took away from this was that there are a lot of smart people in Staunton and the surrounding areas who really "get it" when it comes to sustainable design. This is a hopeful sign for the future. Things are going to get better!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sustainable Design at Mockingbird

I'll be participating in a discussion following the showing of this movie at Mockingbird on Thursday, September 17, in Staunton:

"Green House: Design it, Build it, Live it" is about the design and construction of a residence in Northern Virginia. My contribution will be to discuss the concept in general, and one of my own designs, which will be built in western Augusta County. My theme will be that you don't have to live in Northern Virginia to build one of these houses. We're going to do it here. Joining me will be contractor William Drumeller, and Energy Consultant John Semmelhack, of Think-Little, in Charlottesville.

Here is a rendering of the east side approach.

We will be trying to achieve Passive House standards if possible, with super-insulated walls and roofs, south facing glazing, and an energy recovery ventilation system.

I like to call it a 21st century Usonian design.

The Upper Floor Plan.

The other views. You can see how the house is built into the hillside, with the hill and the workshop/stable sheltering the residence from the north.

The design is basically complete. The owners need to sell some other property, and then we will complete construction documents, and get it under construction. It's an exciting project. Stay tuned for updates.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Historic Districts, Property Rights, and Creativity

I'm finally getting around to following up on my post from November, in which I was touching on the issue of property rights and the potential of a Sears Hill Historic District. In this post, I will talk about the very idea of a historic district, and its effect on property rights, and on design creativity.

Most municipalities have zoning regulations, and some, like Staunton, have designated historic districts. These regulations have been ruled as legal by the Supreme Court, in cases going back to the early 20th century. It is often easy to forget that these things weren't just dreamed up out of thin are in order to control what someone can do with their property. There were strong reasons for implementing them at the time. In Staunton those reasons had do with the rapid destruction of the historic fabric of the city, and the corresponding effect this was having on other properties, and on the tourist industry. In other words, hard headed business people, and property owners were seeing the value of their property go down due to the actions of other property owners who were not as conscientious.

In the past their was a strong peer pressure to maintain one's property, and a sense of civic pride that encouraged people to build beautiful buildings. These days these mechanisms have broken down. The owner of the property may not even live in the state, much less live in Staunton. Because of this, a legal mechanism was created to replace the old peer pressure. The Historic Districts were established. Removal of historic buildings was stopped, and renovation began. After that, there was an interesting phenomenon: property values in the historic districts went up. This encouraged more renovation work, and so on. Investing in one's property, and doing it right create more wealth and more profit from rising rents, etc.

So what is the down side from this kind of regulation of property? Well, the owner must go through the effort to think through a renovation, or better still, hire a design professional to help. The owner has to submit the design to the Preservation Commission for review (Full disclosure: I am on the Commission). The owner can't just put substandard or non-historic materials willy- nilly on his or her building. I happen to think these aren't "downsides". They are simply doing the job right. Then there is another potential problem: taking the idea too far.

OK, what I mean here is that some people always want to turn these kind of regulations into a straight-jacket. To literally dictate exactly what must be built as well as how. To prescribe exactly what look or style a building must be, even a new building. The problem with this idea is that it wants to freeze a district in whatever period it is determined it fits into. However, in Staunton, and in most places, there are many kinds of historic (see my earlier post on the art-moderne house in Newtown). Cities and towns do need to grow and evolve. History didn't stop in 1900. There needs to be room for new work even in historic districts, in order to create new history. As long as the new design fits with the district in objective criteria, like massing, height, materials, etc., it should be allowed. Quality counts for something.

Historic districts, then, should have a firm, but light touch, and allow for creative design. As for those who can't, or won't abide by the rules, well, at least here in Staunton, the vast majority of the area of the city is not in any historic district. Direct your attention there.