12 July 2018

Necessity Is The Mother of Invention: Green Design in the Mid-Century

If you’re like most people, you think sustainable design and construction are strictly contemporary concerns practiced by architects who advocate environmental stewardship. (Green design is actually mainstream now. And that’s a good thing!) Today’s home and building owners welcome the associated cost savings and take pride in knowing they’re doing their part to preserve the natural environment.

What you may not know is that many mid-century modernist (MCM) architects – way back in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s – factored principles of sustainable design into their residential projects long before the practice acquired its “green” moniker. Their homeowners reaped the benefits, oblivious to the concept of “eco-friendly” design. To them, their homes were even more pleasant and special.  

Let’s look at four principles MCM architects utilized without knowing they were being “green.”

Deep roof overhangs

A standard element of sustainable design today. In the early- and mid-20th century, modernist architects had to devise a method for protecting all those wonderful walls of glass and horizontal bands of windows from the high, hot summer sun to reduce glare and heat gain on the interior. Heavy draperies were not an option. The solution to the problem was to make the roof overhangs extra deep, at least by three feet. In the winter when the sun is lower in the sky, light and welcomed warmth would slip under the overhangs.

Of course, this practice is even more effective since the advent of energy-efficient windows. MCM architects had nothing but inefficient single-pane glass for all the glazing and windows on their houses – which made deep roof overhangs vitally important.

Masonry inside for absorbing and radiating heat 

All modernist architects, from the 1920s to young practitioners today, believe visual and physical access to the natural environment is imperative for a home to enhance its owner’s daily life and sense of well-being. In MCM architects’ efforts to blur the line between indoors and outdoors, they used an abundance of glazing (glass), of course, and they brought materials from the exterior of a house into the interior, reusing it in one form or another. The brick, stone or stucco on the outer walls might shape a floor-to-ceiling fireplace, indoor planters, and an entire accent wall in the main living area. The slate, terra-cotta tiles, etc., used for walkways and retainer walls, porch floors or pool decking would reappear in the house’s foyer, kitchen, staircase, or “rec room.” MCM houses often combined those materials with terrazzo flooring in foyers, sunrooms, or bathrooms. (This was back when terrazzo was far less expensive than it is now). In the winter, those masonry materials absorbed the heat from the low winter sun then radiated it into the interior at night as “passive heat.”

Operable windows for cross-ventilation

Another method for minimizing the separation between outside and inside was to maximize natural light and ventilation. We now know this principle greatly reduces a house’s dependency on electrical lighting and air conditioning, reducing both the cost and the house’s carbon footprint. It goes without saying that the glass that helps define all modern houses flooded MCM interiors with natural light.

But the glass was fixed in place. Not a problem today – unless you care about energy conservation -- thanks to air conditioning. But before HVAC systems made it possible to stay cool in a windowless office warren, ventilation was a major concern. So a modernist architect might tuck a row of operable windows along the bottoms of the glass walls and place sliding horizontal windows, for example in strategic locations on the opposite side of the house.* When both were open, cooling breezes swept through the house.

Today, “green” architects care about cross ventilation so homeowners can turn off the air conditioning at certain times of the year and enjoy the natural breezes. Or year-round in perfect-weather locales like L.A. and Hawaii.

*Narrow footprints 

Most MCM houses, especially the more modest ones for “everyday” folks, had narrow footprints. They might even be long, yet only one-room deep. This was – and still is – a very efficient, eco-friendly design in terms of energy savings. Natural light can permeate the entire interior and operable windows on either elevation make natural ventilation a snap. Radiant heat from masonry elements (see above) can also impact more of a house with a narrow footprint.

All of the above is just more evidence of early- and mid-century modernist architects’ brilliance. They were ahead of their time.

*   *   *

About that last point: In a future post, we’ll discuss how being ahead of their time frequently caused a host of headaches for those brilliant modernists and the people who lived in their houses.

07 June 2018

An MCM Icon in Sarasota: Open House this Sunday, 10 June

Modern Florida Homes for Sale

Visit ModernSouthFlorida.com for current offers of modern homes in Florida for sale

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If you want to see one of the Gulf Coast's best mid-century modern homes, and a true icon from the Sarasota School of Architecture period, this Sunday is your chance!

The “Round House” was designed by West & Waters Architects in 1960 and updated by Tatiana White, AIA. My dear friend and wonderful colleague Martie Lieberman has the listing and hosts an open house this Sunday from 11 to 3.

The address is 4433 Riverwood Ave in Sarasota FL 34231; asking price is $1m.

*If* you go, please say hi to Martie for me – and please don't forget to mention that you read about it here on Tobias' blog The Modernist Angle. – Do I ever wish I had time to drive over to see this home!

18 May 2018

Things You Should Know If You Own, Plan To Own, or Plan To Renovate a Mid-Century Modern House

Part V: Interior Finishes and Fixtures - Lighting

The fifth and final post in a five-part series by Arielle Condoret Schechter, AIA

Let me get this out there from the start: I always prefer to keep original light fixtures as long as they look good and they’re not fire hazards. One house I consulted on had a big, woven, cool-looking straw fixture. I looked underneath the shade and was horrified to see burn marks! 

Almost all the original fixtures in houses of the era will need rewiring. You can find places that will do this for you in almost any medium-sized town. I’ve also had a good electrician who was willing to rewire original fixtures for me.

Sadly, most of the original light fixtures are long gone by the time I get to my consults. Often 1980s fixtures are there instead, with ghastly floral shades and ghoulish countrified designs. 

To paraphrase OJ Simpson’s lawyer: In this case, you must REPLACE!

In my opinion, lighting design peaked in the 1950s and ‘60s and hasn’t been surpassed yet. (Footnote:  I do have some favorite contemporary lighting designers, but that’s for another day and another post). 

Fortunately, I have many sources for original mid-century fixtures. Here are some of my favorite designers of the era:

Serge Mouille (pictured below). One of my favorite designers of all time and a luminary (pun intended) of French modernism, Mouille’s original fixtures are highly sought-after gems and very hard to find now, although a few lighting companies are reissuing good versions. Check out http://www.sergemouilleusa.com.
I seriously covet Mouille’s six-arm ceiling fixture (pictured here) for my own home.  Like many of the great lighting fixtures of the era, each head is adjustable. 

I also love these (below) mid-century wall sconces from Stilnovo

George Nelson. Nelson's beautiful “Bubble Lamps” (below) are ideal lighting choices for mid-century modern houses. He designed these pendant lamps for Herman Miller and the Howard Miller Clock Company. You can find good reproductions now, but I prefer the originals with their pretty parchment coloring from age.  

Isamu Noguchi.  Akari lanterns (below), by the brilliant mid-century sculptor (and Buckminster Fuller drinking buddy) Isamu Noguchi, are beautiful and appropriate additions to MCM homes. I love the almost weightless feeling of the paper in contrast with heavy masonry or fireplace elements. 

Gerald Thurston:  A brilliant yet under-appreciated American lighting designer, Gerald Thurston designed for Lightolier One of my favorites among Thurston’s designs is the tension pole (below) that stood from floor to ceiling with adjustable lamp heads attached. 

These are some of the very nicest fixtures for mid-century houses. You can still find them in vintage shops and, sometimes, on eBay. Trust me: They are well worth the effort.

Happy hunting!

ARIELLE CONDORET SCHECHTER, AIA, is a licensed, registered architect based in Chapel Hill, NC, who specializes in Modernist, energy-efficient buildings with a focus on passive houses, NET ZERO houses, her new tiny-house plans known as the Micropolis Houses®, and mid-century modern renovations, remodeling, and additions.  For more information: www.acsarchitect.com.


"Created by forward-thinking men and women who believed design could improve people’s lives by improving the way they lived, architect-designed mid-century modern houses represent the optimism of the era. Those architects believed in the power of design for the greater good. They emphasized simplicity, modernity, and open interior spaces that welcomed natural light and connections to the outdoors, both visually and physically. They brought families together in those big open spaces and acknowledged that exposure to the natural environment is soothing and vital to human well-being." -- Arielle Coindoret Schechter, AIA