The Float House: The Future of New Orleans Housing


Thom Mayne of architecture firm Morphosis is regarded as one of the country’s elite “starchitects”, having won the Pritzker Prize in 2005 (the “Oscars” of architecture) and designed numerous award-winning buildings, including our own, infamous San Francisco Federal Building (I say infamous because of well-publicized mixed reviews on the utility of the space and the building’s inability to become LEED certified despite it’s well-known efforts to be recognized.  To be fair, the building is definitely a “green” structure).

SF Federal Building

SF Federal Building

Mayne, who is also a professor at UCLA’s architecture and design school, recently became involved in designing something much less sexy than highly-visible and expensive public spaces: flood-safe, affordable, sustainable housing.  Mayne, whose firm is based in LA, was tapped by fellow star Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation to help rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  Morphosis developed the project’s original concept and Mayne’s students helped flesh it out and build it.


The result of their efforts is what looks to be a hybrid of a modern ranch house and a mobile home.  While mobile home doesn’t sound so flattering, the Float House’s primary innovation is what gives it the mobile home aesthetic of sitting on stilts – because the house is, kind of.  Underneath the entire house is a four foot tall polystyrene foam coated in glass-fiber-reinforced concrete “chassis” that is designed to support and float the house up to 12 feet high on fixed guide posts if water levels ever reach that in the event of a major flood.  Though the chassis can support the house and its contents so that catastrophic damage is minimized and the house can be preserved after a disaster, occupants must be evacuated.  Mayne and his team did not invent this technology, rather they brought it over from the Netherlands, a country that has 27% of its land mass below sea level and is a pioneer of water-based housing.  Nevertheless, the Float House is the first one of this type permitted in the U.S.

From a design perspective, what Mayne’s team has created given their design requirements is remarkable.  The exterior is an interesting mix of textures, colors, elevations and window placement, giving the house an eclectic, high-end look that is very Morphosis for its undulating, asymmetric planes.  Most notable is the dynamic, butterfly-shaped roof, which features an integrated hurricane shutter along one side of the house and transforms into a polycarbonate, clerestory overhang that allows light into the long gallery beneath it.  The roof even has integrated photovoltaic panels and channels rainwater into collection tanks.  So it shouldn’t be a surprise that this house should become LEED Platinum rated (the highest you can get), based on the mix of high-performance systems and prefabrication methods.


Inside, the spaces are tight, which is to be expected considering its diminutive 1000 square foot size.  But since all rooms open onto the well-lit gallery that runs the length of the house, it appears to have an open feel.  The public space is a smart kitchen, dining and living room combination.  Barn-style doors and numerous built-ins make efficient use of the space.  The design team even found a way to even incorporate a New Orleans architectural and cultural detail: a front porch.

I love the overall design of this house, appreciating the thought and detail that went into it, considering the challenging design requirements.  While this project may not be considered a huge commission for Mayne, I think this project may have been as rewarding or more for him than his other, more glamorous projects.  This project’s design, inspiration and innovation all contribute to a well- deserved, feel-good story for New Orleans.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this project becomes award-winning in the near future…

To read the original article:

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It’s About Time: Solar Roof Shingles


Alright, as a home owner I’ve lusted for solar panels for some time.  While the ROI on solar panels is 10+ years, the idea of not paying for electricity, and better yet, potentially making a few dollars off generating your own electricity is a home owners’ dream come true.

But aside from the huge capital investment, there’s also the practical concern of where to place them, whether the roof or the backyard.  Solar panels don’t look bad necessarily but they definitely look a bit like an afterthought, albeit a high-tech one.  But even my non-engineering mind could foresee the day when thin, photovoltaic sheets could be integrated into things like roof shingles.  Hey, if calculators have been solar-powered for 30 years, it was just a matter of time right?

Well today, Dow Chemical introduced a just that: a thin-film, photovoltaic roof shingle.  The beauty of this product is not just its pretty “like any other shingle” face, but also how it saves on the cost of installing a solar system because these asphalt-based tiles can be installed by your average roofer who is already installing a new, or retrofitting an old roof.  The shingles are simply connected to one another to create one large, super-sized “panel.”  These solar shingles are as durable as standard asphalt shingles and can be “palletized”, walked-on and installed using regular nails.  While an electrician is not needed for hanging them, one is still needed to hook up the solar system to your house’s electrical system.

The only catch with this thin-film technology is that it’s not as efficient as the solar panels that you see around today – these are only 10% efficient.  So these systems require more surface area to create a larger “panel.”  But given that these tiles can be integrated into your entire roof, that doesn’t seem to be a big problem to me.  The bottom line is that this type of solar system should offset 40-80% of your total electricity consumption, though it costs 10-15% less than the typical “racked-based” solar system today.  When compared to other innovative, “building integrated” solar products, this system is 40% less.

As with all bleeding edge technologies, over time we can expect performance to increase while costs decrease.  At the point, when these solar shingles become as efficient as rack-based systems and 25%+ cheaper, then I think these systems will be de rigeur in neighborhoods everywhere.  Until then, early adopters will just have to accept a great looking, less expensive and integrated alternative solar system.

To read the original article:

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My Evening with Designer Piero Lissoni


Tonight I had the chance to listen to Piero Lissoni speak as part of the month-long Architecture and the City Festival put on by the San Francisco chapter of the AIA.  Speaking at the gorgeous CCA campus, Lissoni proved to be as charismatic, affable, honest and genuine as he is talented.  While I knew him well for his work with Italian furniture lines Boffi, Living Divani, Porro, and Cassina, only until he casually mentioned his other clients did I realize the true reach of his work, which includes projects for just about every blue-chip Italian furniture company like Kartell, Alessi, Flos, Cappellini, Poltrona Frau, Glas Italia, Fritz Hansen, Knoll, and Swarowski.  OMG.  In my mind he was already a legend based on the body of work that I knew about, but when I learned about everything else that he did, I was truly blown away.  In sports speak, he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer on par with a Starck or Newson, if not above.

As Lissoni’s lecture began, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Outwardly, he looked the part of designer: navy sportcoat with elbow patches, slim taupe jeans, brown driving mocs, and cream scarf.  On the stage, he had a continuous, looping portfolio of his work on the big projection screen while he was seated and speaking at a folding 6 foot table filled with various objects including an analog clock radio, Mac Powerbook, printed books, Japanese rice bowl, wind-up robot, Alessi coffee press, foam model of a recent building he designed in Istambul, and even a red foam clown’s nose (more on that later).  These would be the props that he used throughout his lecture, which was going to be about his “humanistic” approach to designing, apparently a last minute departure from his pre-planned retrospective of his work (which probably would not nearly have been as enlightening as his new topic, to our luck).

I have to admit that it took more than a few minutes before I could make enough sense of his Italian accent, broken English, and sense humor to concentrate on the content and intent of his speech.  As his lecture wore on (for more than 2.5 hours) and his anecdotes and examples began to amass, his genius began to come through in spades.  What was muddy for me about his humanistic approach became crystal clear – and then enlightening.  While it would be hard to replicate Lissoni’s career path and success, there are plenty of nuggets to take away from his lecture that you or I can learn from.

Unfortunately, the lecture was not recorded nor could I record it or take notes real-time.  So the following quotes, excerpts, points, and facts are purely based on my recollection (and my mad dash to takes notes right his lecture).  If anyone in attendance tonight has anything to add or clarify, please join in on the conversation!  In no particular order, here were the highlights:

  • His working relationship with Alessi began with an hours-long conversation with Alberto Alessi about wine before Alberto finally brought up the idea of designing a watch, which Lissoni agreed to on the spot and without additional conversation.  He called his wine conversation his design “brief.”
  • His Alessi coffee press project was aimed to take on Bialetti’s venerable, classic coffee press, which he said was like challenging Pele to a soccer match – “It was a good game.”
  • On the ergonomics of his furniture: “Of course it’s uncomfortable, I’m Italian!”
  • On his favorite materials to use: he has none and all are specific to each project.  He said “Materials are the language of every project” and that he never chooses to use a material just to use it.
  • He is currently designing a bridge using carbon fiber
  • He once worked with Kartell for more than two years to develop a new manufacturing technology for a chair, which ended up saving more than a kilogram of raw materials per chair.
  • His desk at his office is a 3 meters by 3 meters and covered with books and objects.  He only works on a small 2 foot by 2 foot area on his desk, and only cleans his desk when the other things on his desk begin to intrude on this space (about every 2 months).
  • He cannot work unless he has espresso, bottled water and fresh flowers everyday.
  • He disallows computers in his meetings.
  • His office has 3 libraries, one each for design, architecture/furniture and classics (poetry, novels, etc.).  He said if his employees are not using all three then they are not right for his firm.
  • His puts on a red foam clown nose when he feels his meetings are getting too serious.
  • He says we are all “prostitutes” – “People pay and we do.”
  • He calls his clients his “victims.”
  • On what makes Italian designers the best in the world: their great clients.  He said he is always late to meetings, often shows up empty-handed, often is late with deliverables, and that clients either love him or hate him.  His Italian clients clearly love him – and he quips “Could you imagine if I worked with Japanese or German clients?”
  • He says working with engineers is his biggest nightmare.
  • He thinks “It is impossible to live without technology” but that technology should only be used as a “tool.”  If it’s is used as the sole way to design, then it is wrong and “dangerous.”  He believes that working with your hands is still an essential part of the design process.  He says people often show him beautiful images on a screen but they often have no life.
  • He started designing as a child, first using Legos.  He still thinks like a child but “only on a different scale.”
  • He called his design school “hell” compared to the ones today (like CCA).  He said they had limited tools but were challenged to stay “curious” – his advice to design students today.
  • His approach to designing architecture is different from his approach with products – “There is so much noise out there, I design my buildings to be quiet.”  He also uses a “European approach” to architecture projects where he designs the exterior plus everything in the interior down to the cabinet pulls.
  • Asked if he’s designed a perfect thing: no, and he doesn’t strive for perfection because it’s “boring.”  But he does strive for greater precision in design and greater control over the process.  His example for the need for greater precision – a private home renovation where his budget of 1 became a 10 in reality.
  • His examples of perfection: the work on Antonio Citterio, the work of Carlo Scarpa, a dinner by Alain Ducasse, Church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice by architect Andrea Palladio, the Barcelona Pavilion by architect Mies van der Rohe.
  • The one thing he has not designed that he dreams about: a daughter.  He said with designing materials things “anything is possible” but it is things like life, a family, a daughter that are a real challenge to design.
  • On what makes him happy: “Of course, I like the girls.”

There not much more to say or translate as I think his humanistic approach is pretty clear, at least to me.  While we can’t all be Lissoni or work the same way that he does (wouldn’t it be nice to go over budget 10 times and still have a job or demand fresh flowers at your desk everyday), I know that there are things I am taking away from his lecture that will make me a better designer.

Image courtesy of

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Design Review: Kara’s Cupcakes


So I found myself in Ghirardelli Square this afternoon after a several year hiatus.  Sure, I’d been there recently but in the evenings for ice cream so I haven’t wandered the shops in long while.  As I had heard, there’s been quite a bit of development over the years, namely the conversion of the commercial space to hotel/fractional ownership condos by Fairmont Hotels (Fairmont Heritage Place) plus a few new retail shops.  Though there were a couple of design driven stores (including the noteworthy Crown & Crumpet Tea Salon), one particular store caught my eye, Kara’s Cupcakes.  Kara’s Cupcakes is a five store cupcakery based in the city with stores in SF (two) as well as stores in Napa, Sonoma and Palo Alto.


While Kara is primarily an expert at cupcakes, clearly she has a keen eye for design as well as her store is gorgeous.  From the moment you walk in, you get a feeling of warmth and comfort from both the sights and smells.  The strongest design element of the space is the pink translucent glass panels that serve multiple functions: colored backdrop for the store, menu board, and space divider between retail and back office (where I assume storage, office, bathroom and kitchen are).  The glass is a great metaphor for the whole space and concept – it’s simultaneously cute, modern, and efficient.  While I am sure some would like the store to be more “precious,” I think this store works because its attractive to both traditional and modern cupcake enthusiasts, meaning women and children as well as men, foodies, tourists, etc.


The next most visible material in the store is the great millwork, which appears to be a teak or pearwood (I think).  The veneer covers both the walls that flank the primary glass wall as well as the cupcake display cases.  This choice of wood works very successfully as the medium tones blend perfectly with the pink.  The wood is also less common than the ubiquitous maple or wenge and bridges the light/airy and dark/sophisticated looks well.


What I like about the millwork are the details.  For example, the cupcake display case is actually a cantilevered unit that is set off from an integral concrete base.  Even cooler though is window cupcake display, which is also a cantilevered unit that doubles as the base for the counter seating along the store front.  The result is a dramatic, landscape-shaped aperture within the casework, lined in Corian, to showcase cupcakes while also serving as a modesty panel for customers seated at the counter.  To turn a typically wasted space into a multi-functional design highlight is great design.


Topping is the counters and work areas is Corian, which is a nice change from the quartz counters that are everywhere these days.  I’ve always liked Corian for its warmer, softer, and translucent properties so I am happy to see this here as it adds to the sense of warmth while addressing the functional needs of a commercial space.


Also noteworthy in its design is the storage and display of cupcake boxes given to customers.  A narrow band between the lower storage cabinets and the pink glass is lined in Corian and completely filled with pink boxes of various sizes and shapes.  By stacking the boxes end to end, top to bottom across the this long and wide opening, the boxes take on an almost artistic element like a neat composition of photographs on a wall.  From afar, the uniformity and careful editing of materials on that wall, and really the entire store, is modern and fresh as all you see are expanses of glass, wood, and pink boxes.


From a design perspective I really liked this store a lot.  Aside from what I mentioned, I also liked the branding/mark, the typesetting and layout of their menu, the DWR Onda barstools (which don’t hold up well to commercial traffic by the way) and especially the map of local businesses / vendors / brands that Kara uses and supports with her business, which reads like a foodie’s shopping list on Thanksgiving eve.  As a foodie and design guy, I am so happy and inspired when I see local merchants doing well, bringing together two things I love.

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Bay Line: The Bay Area’s Own Version of NYC’s High Line?


So in previous posts, I’ve alluded to my fascination and love for the High Line, Manhattan’s recently opened, suspended park built on the old High Line railroad line in lower Manhattan.  This mile and a half “greenway” is innovative in so many ways, whether from an urban planning, redevelopment, landscape architecture, or design perspective.  To me, the success of taking something that was about to be torn down and turning it into a design-driven, green oasis in the middle of a sprawling metropolis is almost amazing.

New York's High Line Park

New York's High Line Park

So much to my amazement and excitement did I come across an article last week about Ronal Rael’s idea of taking the old, to-be-torn-down section of the Bay Bridge and turning it into a park and mixed-use development a la the High Line.  Fascinating idea.  Rael, principal at Principal at Rael San Fratello Architects and Professor of Architecture at UC Berkeley’s graduate program, developed his ideas as part of a UCLA-sponsored design competition.  While I am very intrigued by the idea, the reader’s comments beneath the article were mostly about why it cannot or should not be done, but I imagine that when the idea of the High Line was first floated around New York, it received similar feedback from naysayers.  While I am not saying this is a good or feasible idea, I think that successes like the High Line, or the Promenade Plantee in Paris, which the High Line was inspired by, should have us pause and engage in a real dialogue about such an innovative idea.  The article pointed out that if you look at history, the concept of re-purposing a bridge has been around for awhile; look no further than the storied Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence, with all its retail shops, for a rather famous and successful example.  I never thought of it that way when I was there last summer:


While I am no urban planner, re-developer or engineer by any stretch, I have my own reactions and thoughts about this idea.  The three most common obstacles that people pointed out were cost, safety and access.  Here are my thoughts on those three:


The article mentioned that estimated price to retrofit this old portion of the bridge was $200 million (I am not sure if that includes converting the bridge into a park, probably not).  Yes, that is serious money any way you slice it.  But just as financial “backers” of the High Line emerged in New York, I am sure there would be backers of this project as well in the Bay Area, whether individuals, corporations or foundations (in addition to government money).  I’d even be open to corporate sponsorships if need be, based on what the project would be bring to the community.  I can imagine it now – the Apple Amphitheater, the Gap Gardens or the Clorox Climbing Wall.  I know I am probably in the minority, but I would also be open to park entrance fees or bridge toll increases to make this happen.

Another thought would be to not retrofit the bridge at all and save $200 million, reducing costs to just the conversion process.  Of course, this issue leads to safety so let’s talk about that…

Bay Line Rendering

Bay Line Rendering


So here’s the thought about not retrofitting the bridge and going with the current structure.  We’ve all gone to public parks and monuments and not all of them, or not many of them for that matter, are safe.  Take Half Dome in Yosemite, that is a public park that is NOT safe, particularly the uppermost portion.  Why aren’t we retrofitting it with ADA-compliant, seismic controlled, lighted, concrete stairs and ramps?  The answer lies with money and not disturbing the natural habitat.  If that’s true, why can’t with think the bridge in that way?  It is what it is, and what it is is enough to be preserved and shared for the future generations.  Yes, there would be some minimal risk to entering this park (in the event there was a catastrophic natural disaster while you were there – even so in the last big quake “only” one section collapsed, and that was under the weight of numerous cars).  But how is the risk of entering this park any different than going to any other “public” park and being exposed to those risks like hiking Half Dome or hiking Land’s End in San Francisco and risk falling down the cliff or being swept by waves into the ocean?

My only compromise would be to not have the Bay Line be mixed use – I think it should be for recreation and entertainment only.  In my mind this would be help reduce the risk of many people getting hurt since no one would live and work there 24/7.  Furthermore, if the bridge was for recreation only and outfitted with only minimal additional new infrastructure, my guess is that the load and strain on the bridge would be much less that it is today, whereby reducing the impact of a seismic event.

Bay Line Rendering

Bay Line Rendering


This to me might be the most challenging issue since the park is not near any current public transportation aside from car traffic.  I know that the new portion of the Bay Bridge bridge has bike and pedestrian access so I am imagine traversing from the new to the old bridge would be doable.  Still that would only account for very limited access.  I think the easiest solution would be having Treasure Island serve as the park access point (accessible by cars and ferries) and parking area.  A more extreme idea is having an aerial tram system (like the Palm Springs Aeriel Tramway or New York’s Roosevelt Island Aerial Tram) from the Oakland side where parking would be located.  While this is probably pretty expensive, this would become an instant Bay Area landmark and tourist attraction like the London Eye and probably pay for itself over time.  Again, access is a sticky issue…


So this blog post is not supposed to be a deep, insightful analysis or public debate about this project.  Instead it’s merely another point of discussion to explore this novel idea.  As a Bay Area resident and native, proponent of redevelopment, and admirer of innovative urban planning, I just think that this idea has legs, particularly in the face of similar successes in other places.  Why tear down a huge, existing, expensive structure on prime real estate when it can be re-adapted for a productive and inspiring second life?  Sure, it’ll be complex, controversial and expensive but the thought of a two mile long park, 200 foot above the water, looking toward one of the most beautiful panoramas in the world is just too good to not at least consider.

To read the original post and download Rael’s proposal, visit:

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OLEDs: The Future of Lighting


A few days ago, the New York Times ran a great article about OLEDs – what are they you ask?  Organic Light Emitting Diodes, a cousin of the LED lights that we are starting to see everywhere from flashlights to cars’ headlights.  The key difference between LEDs and OLEDs is that OLEDs are made into super-thin, flexible sheets that offer uniform, diffuse light while still retaining the energy efficiency and longevity of LEDs. (think 20 year lifespan).  LEDs offer “points” of light like any normal bulb.

How cool and untapped is this technology?  Well, let’s just say that there is so much opportunity here that GE is spending more than HALF its research and development budget this year on this one initiative. That is a lot of money folks.  What GE is really trying to do is to find new applications for OLEDs and, more importantly, lower costs so that it is not such a huge premium over traditional lighting options.  For example, Sony has an OLED-based 11″ television retailing for $2,500!  Sure the picture quality and viewing angles are better than a standard flat panel, but it’s more than 10 times the cost of current technology.

Still the vision of the future with OLEDs is pretty amazing.  Because the ultra-thin profile, people are experimenting with and talking about using OLEDs in ceiling tiles, wall dividers, windows and even Venetian blinds (to mimic natural lighting at night – how cool is that?).  Famed lighting designer Ingo Maurer (designer of famous lights such as the Zettle’z) is already playing with this material, launching a palm tree-inspired light with OLED “fronds” for a cool $10,000.  I don’t think this is his best design work, but it’s easy to see the possibilities with this technology.


As a designer, particularly one who is infatuated with lighting as well as green design, this medium is super exciting.  So many times I’ve wanted expansive, diffuse light options for projects, whether to light up a piece of art/print/photograph from behind, or to use as an ambient back splash behind a soaking tub or a cooktop, etc.  On a more ractical level, how about just having televisions so thin and so flexible (so that they can be rolled up) that you don’t ever have to design around them anymore.   We all know how “easy” it is to place the ubiquitous flat panel over the fireplace!  Similarly, when OLED sheets become widely available, lighting closets, beneath cabinets, etc. will be a snap and make everyone’s lives better and easier including designers’.

Until then, we can only hope and wait.  In the meanwhile, start with outfitting/retrofitting your homes/projects with LED recessed lights – that’s a great place to start.  More on that to come in another entry…


To read the original New York Times article go to:

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Discovering Clear Magazine


About 10 years ago, I remember the anticipation of getting my Wallpaper magazine.  Back then, that was THE magazine – with its groundbreaking mixture of fashion, architecture, design and travel content, sensuous photography and cutting-edge graphic design and layout.  It was a good magazine until maybe 2002-ish when it started losing it edginess and novelty.  At some point it was bought by Time Inc. – ’nuff said.

Since then I haven’t found that next great do-it-all magazine.  Sure I liked Dwell for awhile (along with everyone else) as well as short romances with Metropolis, Surface and even W magazine.  I eventually figured out that the perfect catch-all magazine (for me at least) didn’t exist so I was forced to read several niche magazine to get my fill of content, including Vanity Fair, Interior Design, Conde Nast Traveler and 7×7 to name a few.

So today I stumbled upon Clear magazine, the online version, and I have to say that I like what I see and read so far.  The primary sections are: fashion, design, art, architecture, luxury, events and collaborations.  What’s not to like?  Perusing these sections I found new and compelling articles about things like:


the grand opening of the W Hotel in Doha, Qatar

the launch of the Code-X yachts (ultra-moderm designs like Wally's)

the launch of the Code-X catamaran yachts (ultra-moderm designs like Wally's)


the opening of the Karim Rashod-designed Switch Restaurant in Dubai Mall

a conceptual home by Formodesign to be built in open water (love the extreme cantilvering)

a conceptual home by Formodesign to be built in open water off Zante Island in Greece (love the extreme cantilevering)

a preview of the Spring 2010 Proenza Schouler shoe collection

a preview of the Spring 2010 Proenza Schouler shoe collection

So while it’s definitely a bit soon to call this my new favorite mag, I love what I see so far.  I might just subscribe since they only publish four times a year.  If nothing else, it might be worth it just to see and collect the covers.  Recent cover collaborators? Ross Lovegrove, Philippe Starck, Takashi Murakami, Jean Nouvel, Marcel Wanders.  ‘Nuff said. Period.

Check it out at

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