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January 15, 2015

Secret weapons of design

Things no design session should be without
by Steve McKee

Over the years I’ve found there are certain tools used in designing a house that are so useful and so powerful that they deserve to be in some sort of Hall of Fame. Barring that, I will at least list them here.

I’m talking about the type of design where clients get to be a part of all the important decisions involving their house. Perhaps there is another type of design; if so, I’m unaware of how to make a living doing it. The method that I’ve been using for the last twenty years relies on owner and architect bringing their unique input to the process – the owners know how they want to live, the architect knows how to shape and combine the spaces to achieve a cohesive and buildable whole. Only through this sort of teamwork can the most satisfying results be achieved. And there are three particularly powerful tools used for this that are critical to achieving the best possible house or remodel.


Collaboration – the only way to truly fly


Plenty of design work happens when I’m working alone in my office, but mostly it’s me exploring various possibilities that I then take and share with the owners who then get to completely influence which direction things go.

There is something potent about the act of “talking it out” in which we state aspects of a design problem out loud and then have to follow tangents and finish sentences. It leads to places that would never have been found without that process. This is especially valuable when we are “stuck” with some sort of dilemma in our design. Moments of brilliant breakthrough can occur this way, but mostly it is simply confirming and validating ideas with each other as the design progresses. We embolden each other. Synergy happens; it really does.


Tracing paper – the best design tool ever


I love my computer and my Autocad program for the massive help they provide in generating all the drawings needed to build a house. But in the early design phases there is nothing that matches the magic power of pencil and tracing paper. At least not in the hands of old-school guys who know how to use them.

Hand sketching is so effective because it allows us to quickly sketch ideas and add nuance to these sketches at the same speed that our brain is generating the ideas. This is huge. Combine that with the back-and-forth exchange of ideas mentioned above and we have the definitive way to reach the best possible design together.

Through the milky tracing paper the existing rooms can be faintly seen. Then we begin. After several iterations and variations explored over two or so meetings we will arrive at a design that we are sure is about as good as can be. And we will be sure of this because we examined all these variations. We’ll return to computer drafting soon after the design has been established, but for now we owe our good progress to tracing paper and our imaginations. Hip hip huzzah!


Meeting at the owner’s house – far too valuable to pass up


A huge advantage to meeting at people’s homes for every meeting (instead of at an office) is our ability to easily jump up from our drawing and go look at some aspect of the house and be immersed in all the aspects of what we are deciding. We make much better decision as a result of this. It’s valuable to be able to check the exact best view angle from somewhere, or how crowded or not is the old linen closet, or where exactly is the gas line that will be used to fuel the new tankless water heater, or how dim or not is the hallway, or how privacy is affected by a sightline from a neighbor’s window, etcetera.

So many sensible solutions will be missed if meetings are held away from the project location. When that happens, it’s such a damn shame that forever-after the house will be not-as-good as it could have been. And it will be compromised just so the lazy architect could save himself a few minutes of driving on three or four occasions. Frankly, I wouldn’t hire a designer that doesn’t meet you in your home throughout the design process.


When we combine all these tools we have a potent combo. Here’s an example from the other day: The homeowner and I were working to reconcile a design in which the new master bedroom would be sort of okay but really shorter than we all agreed it ought to be. Meanwhile a full three rooms away, the kids’ bathroom was much bigger than it needed to be. The owner was already starting to settle for the less-than-ideal solution, but that sort of talk just fires me up to find a solution where we meet our original goals.

Long story short: An idea hit so I checked to see if the owners liked the idea of making the kids’ bathroom a “Jack and Jill” (in which the bathroom is accessed only from the two bedrooms) which would then allow us to shift various rooms around and open up more space in the master bedroom. While we were at it we were able to add an alcove space in the master which would let the owner move her computer out of the kitchen into a dedicated space around the corner from the bed where the sleeper wouldn’t be disturbed and paperwork piles would be largely unseen. The owners were delighted to see their design enriched this way.

In other words, all my favorite tactics were used to figure out this design: being on site allowed a visit to the kitchen which inspired a conversation about how nice it would be to get the computer into a dedicated and customized location . . . . which then inspired us with our tracing paper sketches to easily move spaces around almost like a puzzle . . . . all of which was inspired by our brainstorming about the problem.

Anyway, that’s how I like to do it.

December 7, 2014

The rise and fall of Penn Station

And other N.Y. tales that have a hold on me
by Steve McKee

On my last full day in New York I decided to give my daughter a break from me while I went off on my own for a few hours to see some sights that only I would enjoy.

I realized this was a good idea the previous day when she and I were walking around Midtown and I asked if we could detour to see inside the Penn Station train terminal because I wanted “to see if it was really as bad as they say it is.” As I said it, even I could sense how weird that request sounded, so I dropped the idea and we continued on in search of good pizza.

Weeks before, I had seen a documentary that described in detail how the first Penn Station had been created just over a hundred years ago. It was a beautiful lofty train terminal filled with light and huge arched ceilings that matched the rhythms and grandeur of old Rome. Then, just half a century later, they decided to demolish it. Yep, someone decided to tear down one of the nicest buildings ever. Everything except for the train track concourse at the lowest level was jack hammered into oblivion. Then they built a claustrophobic version of a train station with the Madison Square Garden sports arena above it.

Penn Station concourse

Penn Station concourse

This saga all began in the early 1900’s when Alexander Cassat, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, noticed how much he hated that his company’s trains didn’t actually arrive in New York, but instead stopped on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, requiring passengers to scramble for a fleet of ferries to make it the rest of the way into Manhattan. So he quietly set about buying up the tenements in an entire two block area on the West Side of Manhattan while his team of engineers and diggers began to tunnel through the thick sludge under the Hudson River, the first time such a feat was ever attempted. He hired a leading architect of that era, Charles McKim, to design the train station. McKim and Cassat fed off each other’s enthusiasm. The end result was a masterpiece of Beaux Arts magnificence, modeled on the massive Roman Baths of Caracalla with a bit of Paris’s newest train station, Gare D’Orsay, thrown in as an influence.

It was a beautiful building for the ages. Unfortunately, robust patronage of train travel was not for the ages. As more and more passengers turned to automobiles in the 1950’s, the finances of Pennsylvania Railroad suffered and the decision was made to sell the development rights above the station, so it was demolished in 1963 to make way for Madison Square Garden and an office building. The train concourse below was kept in place and a new dumpy 1960’s version of a train station was made to fit between the train tracks below and the arena above.

The documentary that I saw about all this (“The Rise and Fall of Penn Station” available for viewing on Youtube) included footage of workers matter-of-factly jackhammering beautiful granite plinths into rubble. It’s appalling to watch that, just as it

Penn Station waiting room

Penn Station waiting room

appalled New Yorkers to see one of their finest buildings turned to ruins and realize too late that they had not done enough to try to save it. Never again would this sort of thing happen in New York. This building became the martyr that let other notable buildings live.


“Where we once entered like kings, we exit like rats,” wrote architectural historian Vincent Scully about the new Penn Station.  That’s why I wanted to see it, so I could get in on the story. Was it really all that bad?

I found it to be indeed a dumpy 1960’s version of a train station – utilitarian at best. Rome was gone. In its place were ceilings and escalators and fluorescent lights that felt sort of like being in a J.C. Penney, except darker.

These days train travel is on the rise and there is talk about redoing Madison Square Garden and relocating Penn Station into the grand neo-classical post office right across the street. I’ll keep track of that in case it gets interesting.

From there, I walked over to Grand Central Station (site of many a viral video of flash mobs breaking out in surprise performances) to remember what an impressive train station felt like. Then it was up Park Avenue for a brief visit to the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Nothing remarkable to report there.

I made sure to seek out Paley Park, a delightful little plaza with trees between two buildings on 53rd Street that has been a favorite of mine ever since I saw a short film that discussed it years ago in school. It’s only 42′ wide and 100′ deep, but has a full width waterfall at the back. The sound of the rushing water softens city noises. The grid of trees makes for good dappled shade, and all the chairs are movable to allow people to arrange their own sitting choices. These factors somehow combine to make this little park a wonderful place to briefly leave the city behind. The people watching is good, and that in turn draws more visitors, making the people watching even better. I know about the synergistic aspects of this park because of a film by William Whyte, a sensitive man with a droll sense of humor and great insights as to how humans really use urban spaces. His one hour film is called “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.” It too can be seen on Youtube. He has a book by the same name that is an easy read.

In the 1960’s Whyte became an advisor to the New York Planning Commission because of his skill in collecting useful data on how to create truly user-friendly plazas and small parks. Through endless months of charting where people actually hung out in existing plazas (and with time-lapse photography) he obtained measureable information on how people really use these sorts of spaces, sometimes in direct contrast to conventional wisdom. This led to the creation of very specific zoning guidelines, such as how to best include ledges for sitting and why it’s best to plant trees in groves.  His work led to people-friendly plazas and parks throughout New York. Job well done, I say.

Perhaps my biggest plunge into being a tourist came when I decided to spend a couple hours on one of those “hop on, hop off” double-decker busses with the top level open to the city. There could be nothing more touristy that this. I decided not to care – an attitude I found very liberating.  I chose to see this as a way to effortlessly be toured about the interesting parts of Manhattan in an elevated convertible. What’s not to like about that?


The iconic Flatiron building

The iconic Flatiron building

Through the traffic of the Theater District crept the bus. Then slowly through Greenwich Village, where we actually had to duck our heads under overhanging branches. Dangerous, sure, but I saw it as added adventure. After that it was down Fifth Avenue past the famous “Flatiron” building of 1902 on its narrow triangular lot. This slender tapered building was quite tall for its era. Some of the locals were sure it would topple in a strong wind. It didn’t.

When my bus got to Little Italy, I used my “hop off” privilege to better explore the area on foot. I was on a mission to see Mulberry Street because of an image I had seen two days before in a coffee-table book at my daughter’s apartment called “New York – Then and Now.” It showed that street as it was a hundred years ago when it overflowed with Italian culture.

Mulberry Street Little Italy circa 1900

Mulberry Street
Little Italy circa 1900


Mulberry Street had been the cultural heart of Little Italy. Think of those great scenes in the second Godfather movie of the bustling and boisterous street life in that immigrant community. The Italian-Americans have since spread out across America from there. These days the Italian restaurants are moving out of Little Italy due to high rent. Chinatown is creeping in, so the bustle of Little Italy that I saw was just about gone. But it was the staggered roof tops and jumbled fire escapes that I had come to see – just like where a young Robert DeNiro playing Vito Corleone hopped from roof to roof to dump pieces of his gun down various stove pipes after he rid the neighborhood of that mean old Don Fanucci.

I got a call from Gwenna who seemed bored and anxious for us to meet up again, this time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a couple hours of world class art. So I used my nascent subway skills to head uptown. Before taking off for California the next morning, I bought her a one-month subway pass so she would be free to travel at will and not worry about scrimping and altering her errands to save on subway fare. A dad’s got to do something to help out his little girl before he leaves her alone in such a big city!

November 30, 2014

My New York Story

by admin

This time the trip to New York City was about helping Gwenna, now twenty-two, move there to start a new life. She and I were flying there, so I suppose my greatest contribution was to let her use my two suitcases for more of her stuff, while I lived from a carry-on bag for my four-day stay. Otherwise, she was clearly fine on her own, taking the lead on airport chores and negotiating subway routes. Clearly, I was the follower on this trip, and happily so.

She had found a sublet of a three bedroom apartment she would be sharing with two other young women in the Astoria area of Queens. This apartment was made more affordable by an elevated subway that ran down the street just outside their front window. I can tell you after just a few times, I really did get used to the rumbling that filled the apartment every few minutes. It just became part of a reverberating New York energy present in this place. The upside was the subway stop that was just a block away. The city was at our doorstep.

Since I was the visiting tourist, I got to pick what I wanted us to see. I had an agenda that included some items we could both enjoy, like seeing world-class art at the Met and going to Broadway shows. I also had a separate list of offbeat items I would choose to inflict only on myself, like an extended walking tour to visit obscure buildings, certain neighborhoods and two Manhattan train stations. I would save my geeky solo stuff for the last day.

On our first morning, we took the subway in for a late breakfast on a tree-lined side street in Greenwich Village. We overheard someone talking about “buying two units in order to remodel them into one big one,” and it made us smile. I try not to be too pedantic with my kids (and sometimes can’t help myself) but I wanted my daughter to understand her new city, so I told her what I knew about the gentrification that started in the eighties when affluent people quit fleeing to line in the suburbs and instead sought out cool funky places in Manhattan, giving birth to the word “yuppie” and the rise of the expansive loft apartments built into empty industrial spaces with tall ceilings and huge windows. And rich people talking about turning two living units into one.

After that, we made our way north towards the Theater District via the new High Line Park, a walking trail created on an abandoned elevated train line on the West Side. It’s like a big elevated garden and is a hit with people, crossing streets and offering views of various neighborhoods and the Hudson River.

New York's newest park - the "High Line" An abandoned elevated train track became a garden and an alternate walking route through the city.

New York’s newest park – the “High Line”
An abandoned elevated train track became a garden and an alternate walking route through the city.

My big splurge for the week was popping for tickets to the “Book of Mormon,” deemed the best musical of 2011, and therefore totally on my daughter’s radar. I was happy to find it was less about lampooning a deeply held faith and more an indictment of human nature. It was seriously funny too. Tickets are quite expensive for any given Broadway show (over a hundred dollars each and sometimes double that!) but they sell out because the shows are terrific. By our figuring, there were eighteen different musicals running in the Theater District at that time.

Heading back home to Queens on the subway meant the usual for me – follow Gwenna through a turnstile and then keep up as she wound through the people and down some stairs. Then wait a minute on a platform, amuse myself by looking at the variations of the subway tile on all the walls, watch headlights coming down a dark tunnel, board the train, stand with a hand on the overhead pole and then just people-watch. I loved it all. I can tell you that black is still the favorite color for clothes in that town. Often, there was a transfer for us at either Lexington or 42nd Street that involved walking along especially long tiled tunnels that wound around corners and up and down stairs, past a guitarist or violinist and then up more stairs because the crowded escalator would have slowed us down. I learned my daughter shares my penchant for taking stairs two at a time when we are on the move.

The subway felt safe and clean enough. It’s not pretty, but it’s not ugly either. The graffiti is all gone now. It’s sturdy, runs on time and, for only $2.75, will take you just about anywhere in the city. Thumbs up from me.

That’s pretty much how it went for us for those three days. We were willing to go anywhere the subway went. We made a trip to Saint John the Divine, a gothic cathedral being built from stone on the far upper West Side. I have fond memories of a visit I made there in 1987 and how fascinating it was to watch the stone cutting yard right next door where a master and apprentice masons were carving the individual stones that were to be hoisted into place. It was the Middle Ages brought to life. Each stone being carved seemed to me to be a sort of masterpiece, beautiful on its own, but more amazing how each piece would fit smoothly with its neighbors to create the shapes that then created the totality of the cathedral. I would never take gargoyles for granted ever again.

When we got to the cathedral this time, I saw that the stone cutting yard was gone. I inquired and was told that Dennis the master mason had moved on years ago and the program had simply ceased to be. The cathedral looked complete to me, except maybe for the tower, I suppose.

One night, on our way to another show in the Theater District, we were winding our way through throngs of people under the ever-present sidewalk scaffolding, below huge arrays of dazzling colored lights and video displays. It felt a lot like the opening scenes in Blade Runner, except without the rain or the despair. It was otherworldly, and therefore totally cool, in my opinion. My senses tend to open up big time when I travel. It’s why I go.

The 9-11 Memorial - Twin pools are positioned exactly where the towers stood

The 9-11 Memorial –
Twin pools are positioned exactly where the towers stood

The next day we went downtown to see the twin towers memorial. Trees surround two sunken square shaped pools that are positioned exactly where each building stood. Water cascades down the sides. The black edge of the pools protrudes four feet above ground level with a sloped edge that has the names of the lost souls engraved on it. The memorial resonates.

Later that day, we took the train to the lower East Side so we could walk across the elevated pedestrian lane of the Brooklyn Bridge, fulfilling another bucket-list goal for me on this most senior of the grand American bridges. We paused halfway across to turn and take in the Manhattan skyline, seen against the gathering dusk of a cloudy sky. The new “One World Trade Center” reached its famous 1,776 feet into the sky.

“I have to say it doesn’t dazzle me,” I said.  “And I really wanted it to. Maybe it’s fantastic on the inside.”  Unfortunately the ring of metal gobbledygook at the top where the spire meets the building (satellite dishes or something like that) was one of its most distinctive features and looked like clutter.  I looked at the other downtown buildings, some new, but most from a bygone era when a building wasn’t afraid to be a building. So many of the new buildings in Manhattan seem completely uninspired to me, relying on some wriggle in their skin, or a weird bent geometry in the building’s shape to try and create some sense of artistry. For many decades the older buildings of Manhattan have been able to impart human scale, despite their size, because of things like individual windows that open and walk-out patios wherever the building steps in. The human habitation implied by these touches are right there for all to sense.

Once in Brooklyn, we hopped a cab to the Williamsburg area because it was supposed to be the hippest neighborhood in ultra-hip Brooklyn. I suppose I was expecting some sort of buzz to the place. Instead it was just extremely relaxed. It was clear that the twenty-somethings were running the place, and it was all pretty chill. (Please excuse lame unhip language on my part. I don’t know any better.) An antique store we visited had the usual sorts of things, but it seemed to me that some of the kitschier items were being displayed ironically. But I’m sure I’m making too much of that.

With that visit, I had accomplished most of my bucket list for this trip, except for the wonky things I would do on my last day. I would give Gwenna the morning off from me so I could seek out things like the little pocket park that was the subject of a time-lapse study proving that people prefer movable chairs to fixed seating. I would go to the neighborhood that would have been wiped out if Jane Jacobs had not lead a citizen uprising fifty years ago against a freeway slated to cross the middle of Manhattan. You know, geeky stuff like that.


To be continued next week. . . . . .


November 30, 2014

What the Napa earthquake taught me

by admin

A few weeks after the big Napa earthquake, John Laverty the builder, told me he had seen several of the Napa projects we had done together and that they had held up great in the shaking. That was good to hear. Year after year, we spend our effort designing and building extra strength into these houses by calling for extra plywood nailed tight to strengthen walls and metal straps nailed off to bridge any framing joints that will undergo major tension during a shake. We do all of this, house after house, for that singular moment that we know will randomly show up one of these decades when fifteen or twenty seconds of violence will test our houses. It was heartening to have observable proof that our efforts are paying off. These days we really do know how to make a house safer from earthquakes.

Meanwhile, texts and photos continued to arrive from Phil Joy showing older houses that needed to be hoisted by his house lifting crew for major repair work. Often, there was some key weakness that could have been remedied for a few thousand dollars. I imagine that those owners would surely love a chance to go back in time and make those retrofits.


Here is what I learned from the recent Napa earthquake.


Don’t assume past performance is an indication of earthquake readiness

It seems logical that if your house or building has a history of surviving past earthquakes (such as the ’06 San Francisco earthquake and the ’89 Loma Prieta earthquake) that it’s proven itself to have certain strength that will help it survive future earthquakes. In the absence of x-ray vision to examine hidden structural components, I’ve fallen into that way of thinking myself.  No more. Not after seeing the recently crumpled corners and fallen brick parapets of Napa and Vallejo buildings that had survived those previous earthquakes without damage.


Beware the seemingly inactive local fault lines

In Benicia, our local fault line is the Concord-Green Valley Fault. The last large earthquake occurred there between 200 and 500 years ago, says the USGS. It’s not nearly as noteworthy as the famous San Andrea Fault or the sort of famous Hayward Fault. It seems to be so small and inactive that it’s not worthy of our concern. So did the West Napa Fault line until 3:20 a.m. on that recent August morning.


Distinguish real preparedness steps from the lists mentioned by the talking haircuts on TV

Yes, yes, have a spare flashlight and some spare water stored somewhere. Now can we talk about real preparedness? Strapping your water heater is a good start. Then get help to determine if any of your building components are at risk. A structural engineer or an architect versed in these structural concepts can help with this.


Reinforce the cripple walls!

If I could list just one thing, this would be it. It’s one of the easiest and most effective upgrades you can do. Only certain houses need it. But they really need it.

Some houses have wood frame floors that are raised up a couple feet or more above the concrete foundation by sitting on short wood frame walls. These “cripple walls” are often the weak point in earthquakes because they’re not up to the task of resisting the sideways force as the huge weight of the house rocks back and forth. A two story house with cripple walls below is even more at risk because of the extra weight.cripple wall reinforcement

Solution: Connect the wood framing at the bottom of the cripple wall to the foundation with 5/8″ bolts (or add special metal connectors called “universal foundation plates” that can get installed sideways if working clearance is limited.) Also, connect the top of the cripple wall to the floor framing with nail-on metal connectors (either the “A35” or the “H10” clip as shown in the Simpson Strong-tie catalog – the industry standard and available online.)  Then add half inch thick plywood that spans from top and bottom of this wood framing and is well nailed, with a nail every four or six inches. Cover 16′ of all outside cripple walls with this and you’ll be in much better shape to ride out the next temblor.


Tall brick chimneys are just waiting to snap

The old chimneys in downtown houses in Benicia are particularly at risk. Especially the taller ones. Check to see if the mortar has grown so weak that the chimney should be removed. The least you can do is add a metal pole brace at an angle from the roof to a steel band wrapping the chimney up high. Preferably two such braces that angle away from each other back onto the roof in order to “triangulate” the chimney and add rigidity in all directions.

Reinforcing the cripple walls will keep the house from rocking as much and will give brick fireplaces and chimneys a fighting chance of surviving. (See what I mean about how important it is to have strong cripple walls?)


Earthquake reinforcements are a better value than earthquake insurance

Earthquake insurance cost a thousand dollars per year and often much more. The insurance companies raised their rates after the Northridge earthquake in ’94 when their industry got hit with a big bill. The deductibles are high – ten and fifteen percent. That means the homeowner has to pay the first forty or sixty or eighty thousand dollars of repairs themselves before insurance money starts to help! I’d rather pay for earthquake strengthening (a one time cost) and then forego paying the yearly earthquake insurance premium. But that’s just me.


Southampton and other modern subdivisions like Waters End should do well.

            If you live in a house built in the last thirty year or so, your house was built in the era of modern earthquake engineering. Good for you. You have shear walls embedded here and there in your house walls and reasonably good metal connections to your foundation. You should do well in future earthquakes. Some of you may have a potential weak spot if you have a second story room over a garage. The end wall of the garage that is mostly just a big opening for the door is probably the weakest point of your house for earthquake resistance. Plywood and foundation bolts added to these narrow walls (on the inside face because that’s easier than disturbing the siding and trim on the outside face) will help you avoid major damage.


Houses downtown built before the fifties have special needs.

Houses constructed before the second world war are from an age when designers and builders were especially clueless about what they should be doing to defend against earthquake damage. These houses may have unreinforced cripple walls or insufficient bolts attaching the wood framing to the foundation, as discussed above.


Old First Street buildings with large glass storefronts are the biggest risks of all.

So many of the older downtown buildings are big heavy two story structures. There’s usually a nice strong boxy building on the top and an open floor plan below that includes large areas of glass on the street front. These buildings have what is called a “soft story” and desperately need to have a steel “moment resisting” frame added just inside the front wall. This new frame will be hidden as much as possible and run along the top and corners of the front wall. A strong concrete foundation will be added at the two ends of the frame in order to anchor this frame (and thereby the building) rigidly to the earth. The twenty thousand dollars (or so) to do this retrofitting will seem like a bargain compared to losing the building (or worse!)Benicia soft story building


So, even after everything I just wrote, I think it’s mostly good news. There a few key spots in our buildings where we need to be paying attention, and we know what they are.  We understand what we need to do and have only ourselves to blame for inaction.

October 1, 2014

Napa: the earthquake aftermath

A journey to the heart of the big quake
by Steve McKee


Phil's first act of earthquake recovery - removing a broken chimney from a rental house of his

Phil’s first act of earthquake recovery – removing a broken chimney from a rental house of his

About a week after the Napa earthquake, I started receiving texts from my buddy Phil Joy, the house-lifter, that included photos of damaged houses and buildings. There were images of walls slanting and front porches with their posts all leaning at the same wrong angle. Phil was getting called out by the owners of the worst hit structures and then having to come to terms with the damage in order to plan a fix for it. He was in a unique position to understand what this quake had done to buildings.

I had already seen the damaged brick and stone buildings in downtown Napa. Phil said the damage that amazed him the most occurred in the subdivisions west of downtown where a crack in the earth had been created by the earthquake. The crack was very narrow — a quarter inch maybe — like one you wouldn’t think twice about if you were to walk by it. But it ran for miles and was the focus of the worst of the energy. Where it crossed roads and sidewalks it left behind split and tilted pieces of asphalt and concrete that looked like skateboard jumps. Where this crack ran under houses there had been extra havoc for those unlucky homeowners.

One-story homes that normally would have had just shaken badly or had furniture topple, were instead torn from their foundations. As Phil described what he was seeing in these buildings, he seemed to be in awe of the strength and sheer willfulness of the earthquake to damage certain parts of these houses.

All sorts of strange things had happened in this quake. There were firsthand reports of dry creeks starting to flow again right after the shaking stopped. In one of the houses, a grand piano had been flipped upside down; its legs were unbroken. This meant that the house had endured a bucking action severe enough to rotate an object weighing many hundreds of pounds. What must that house have undergone to do that to a big piano? I knew then that what we had experienced with this earthquake in Benicia was a small fraction of that energy.

I passed along the most interesting stories to Melody. She suggested that I tag along with Phil to see some of these houses. There’s an intriguing idea, I thought. I’d probably learn some things about how buildings behaved under stress, and in a much more dynamic way than any book could convey. Phil liked the idea and proposed we include our wives and do a Sunday morning tour to visit some of the houses he was starting to work on.

With all of us in Phil’s big four-door pickup, we drove the side roads of western Napa, heading north. At one point I felt a small bump in the road. “That was the crack,” said Phil. We drove on and turned northwest. Another mile ahead the crack crossed the road again so we stopped to examine the small ridge of asphalt it had created. I saw that it had shifted the road about two inches sideways. Some patching compound had been applied to smooth over the worst parts of the ridge. It all seemed tame enough, until we walked over to a nearby house that Phil had been called in to fix. At first glance the house seemed fine, with no real damage. But then my attention was turned to the base of the walls on the sides where the stucco was badly bent out. In the back, the top of the foundation was exposed where the house had slipped many inches sideways. The bolted wood plate on top of the concrete had actually ripped apart.

Looking through a window, the inside of the house looked normal. Someone had cleaned up and it was hard to feel a sense of drama about the problem. But because the house had torn free of its foundation, it was as good as doomed (and a recipient of the dreaded “red tag” barring entrance.) That is, until house-movers come to raise it five or six feet so a new stronger foundation can be built below and then the house lowered back down and reattached to the foundation — extra strong this time. Phil explained that all these houses return to their flat and upright state very readily, almost like they want to, because that’s how their framing was set up to be.

At another house much further north along the crack line, I saw that the corner of a concrete foundation had split open revealing the steel rebar inside. This was amazing damage. Not because of its size, but because these houses were low rise structures built within the last few decades and were considered low risk for this sort of damage. These houses simply had the bad luck of being directly above the spot where all that energy miles below had manifested as a surface fracture that had shaken things madly in different directions.

One resident I spoke with described his experience like this: He was awakened by an enormous boom and jolt that popped him upright in his bed, followed instantly by what seemed like a freight train crashing into his house — endlessly crashing — for what felt like an hour, but really was about twenty seconds. He thought he and his family were going to die. Through his wildly swinging window blinds he saw a bright flash of light that seemed like a flaring streetlight, but then was followed by several more flashes, some far away, some near, as if transformers were exploding. His young daughter said from her room the lights looked like ghosts.

I later learned that this was a phenomena called “earthquake lights.” It’s like lightening that flies out of the earth when earthquakes happen. For real. Scientists are unsure about the cause because it’s impossible to know when and where to set up to study it. Some earthquakes produce floating sheets of light sort of like the aurora borealis. In Napa it was more like lightening. I say this with some assurance because I went online to see footage from surveillance cameras at the storage yard of the Napa Wine Train that show earthquake lights popping off in the distance. You can too. Go to youtube and enter “napa wine train earthquake.” It’s grainy, but the earthquake lights are undeniable. Phil talked to a winery owner who saw his vineyard bursting with bright lights during the earthquake — just like transformers blowing all over grape covered hillsides that certainly had no transformers. Earthquake lights are real.

All the people we met in these neighborhoods were of good cheer and expressed gratitude to be alive and unhurt despite their big financial setbacks. Almost no one had earthquake insurance. Those who did, had deductibles so large that the insurance companies did not have to pay for the first one or two hundred thousand dollars in damage. Holy moley!

Are there important things to learn from all this? Methinks there surely is.

Next column: The lessons I’m taking away from the Napa quake.

July 22, 2014

My eclectic house

by Steve McKee

Previously in Architalk: ____________________________________________________________________

“Was I ever going to design a house for myself?” asked the student.

            “Oh sure,” I said. “Someday.”

            “What will it be like?” asked another.

            I then gave an answer that I didn’t even know was waiting within me. Unstated notions residing deep inside came to the surface and a fully formed answer came out of me, as if I talked about this sort of thing all the time.

            “My house will be eclectic,” I said. “Not of any one style. It will be so over the top and filled with ideas that it will all somehow work.”

            I knew as I was saying it without time to filter my thoughts or edit myself that something significant had just happened, at least in my own little world. . . . . .


And now . . . . today:

It’s been five years since I was a guest speaker at my daughter’s art history class at the high school, showing images of my favorite buildings in the world. Since then a lot has happened. There’s been an economic bust and boom. Along the way Melody and I managed to buy a vacant lot for ourselves.

For many months I’ve been designing a house for me and my family to be built there from the ground up. Musing about its design is my Friday afternoon project – the thing I get to work on after taking care of business all week. Because it’s a vacant lot, it’s all on me to supply the form for this house. I’ve done that plenty of times before, but never for me. That makes a big difference. It’s what I’ve been waiting for, even before my sixth grade math teacher, Mrs. Rhoades, caught me doodling a house on the margin of my notes and asked out loud in front of everyone if it was some sort of dream house.

To pay for the vacant lot, we had to sell off a couple rental houses (finally daring to touch the hallowed “nest egg.”) Slightly scary, but it felt like it was finally time to make our big play.

The surprising thing about this is that I’ve waited this long to write about it, considering I have an itch to write about all things concerning design and construction, especially thought-provoking things that stir me up, and believe me, this process has provoked thoughts and stirred me up.

I’ve struggled to come to terms with the tone I want this house to have. That’s been the toughest part, because every design decision meant opting for an idea that then ruled out all the other cool ideas that I could be doing in its place. I was certain that each path not taken would have surely been something exciting and worthy. And they were gone forever.

I have more than my share of books filled with glossy images of cool houses. Currently there are a couple stacks of them in my office, each shaggy with post-it notes protruding on all sides. These mark a hundred images, each one deserving a sigh and a long moment of appreciation. The bulletin board over my drawing board is filled with pinned-up images.

Then there are the houses and their details that go by fleetingly in movies. If I’m watching alone I’ll go back, pause, and take a minute to do a quick sketch (after all, the best way to truly see something is to draw it) and then note the name of the movie at the bottom as well as how many minutes in, just in case I ever want to go back and take another look at that image. I never do. Too many new images coming my way. The act of drawing it causes that building to be internalized in my subconscious knowledge bank, or so I hope. The sketches are saved, often rediscovered days or months later and admired anew.

A hundred years ago, the design of stylistically interesting cottages was very much in vogue. Architects like Bernard Maybeck and others could create houses that masterfully blended two styles into a cohesive whole. One such pairing was dubbed “Japo-Swiss” which created an attractive variation of an arts-and-crafts look (despite the culturally tone-deaf label!) That blending intrigued me. Traditional ideas with a twist.

Would it be possible to create a house that had the rambling aspect of a Mediterranean villa, but with Craftsman style siding and details? A house with outdoor stairs and patios and arched windows but with shingle siding and tapered columns? Cool. People would have to pause when asked to identify the style of the house. I liked that.

My own design seems to be settling into a middle ground between many favorite styles I don’t even want to name. It is a mixed breed, just like the best dogs I’ve ever had.

I’m attracted to basic gable forms with steep roofs. I like a house that rambles and becomes whatever it needs to be, due to internal life forces or external views. There will be wood windows of all configurations and sizes set in thick walls of smooth stucco. Maybe some vertical siding as an accent. I’ll have awnings to shade the important windows that receive the south and west sun. These awnings will also provide an excuse for a strong color accent. I’d like a house with some of the exuberance of Mark Twain’s Hartford House. I want a courtyard away from the wind.McKee residence - version 15

I hope it has something I call “balanced asymmetry” like the kind that Julia Morgan could do so well, but with accent lights in front like Larry David’s Bel-Air house on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” And with a cantilevered wood balcony like at the house on page 191 of “Santa Barbara Style.” With brackets below, like at the Port San Luis Lighthouse. And it goes on from there.

Last night I saw that Rick Steves was on channel 9 ready to tour Croatia and I couldn’t help but watch for a bit and dream of stone columns and colonnades and a different house that I will never get to build for myself. Ah, so many ideas, so little time.


May 16, 2014

The wind is rising. We must try to live.

Ten years of column writing means I get to choose a poem for a title
by Steve McKee

It was ten years ago last month I started writing this column. Thus begins decade number two. My first column was about how to turn a walk-in closet into a full blown dressing room without too much trouble. Not bad, that column. They’re all available online. Just go to and look for the “architalk” button on the left side. (Really, please do!) I work pretty hard on these things and it would be good to know they have a life after the day they’re published in the Herald. Favorites include one titled “You, the tile shop, the decision.” The column called “A Benicia Sense of Place” got the most email responses ever from readers. Another fave of mine was “How Venice got its Mojo.” These titles are but a small sample of what is available at my website. All ten years worth. With color photos and everything!

I’ve finally submitted an updated photo of myself, which is presumably now looking out at you a few inches away from these words. Ten years of age have been added in one fell swoop. With this, I have now fully outed myself as a grey haired person. I always liked the forty-five year old Steve, but the fifty-five year old version seems to be hanging in there well enough, at least for now. There are trips to the gym three days a week for spin classes at five thirty in the morning. Many people cannot fathom doing a workout at such an ungodly hour, but I really like it because I get it over with. As a result, I never ever go through a day needing to somehow fit in a workout. Not ever. Melody joins me and we keep each other honest. Travel is the only acceptable excuse for missing.Steve 2013

And speaking of travel, it has apparently become a new favorite subject of mine to write about. Why not? What’s not to love about traveling? Being in new and different places somehow opens me up to seeing things anew. Even seemingly mundane things become interesting. (The stairs in Amsterdam sure are steep and narrow . . .  but that doesn’t slow down that old waiter. Look at him fly up and down that thing.)  I’ll never have a fancy car because I’ll be spending money on airfare. As long as my body can hold out.

I noticed that the forty-something version of me had such deep philosophical insights as: “Well, I guess I’m about halfway through my stay on this crazy merry-go-round.” And now the fifty-something version of me has thoughts more like: “Yikes, I only have about fifteen years left to do active stuff! Time to get a move on!” As a result, ideas for adventure, large or small, will most likely get the green light from me. Hence the travel.

The wind is rising. We must try to live.

Those two sentences are from a poem by Paul Valery titled “The graveyard by the sea.” It’s a sort of zen version of carpe diem, coming from a French man in 1920 who spent some powerful moments one day at his hometown cemetery, where he knew he would be buried someday. I like it enough to name my big gala ten-year column after it. I found out about that poem when it was mentioned as inspiration for the animated movie “The Wind Rises,” the 2014 film by master animator Hayao Miyazaki, one of my favorite artists ever. They say this is his last film. I say the world will be a slightly worse place without him making movies.

It turns out that “The wind is rising. We must try to live,” also makes for the perfect message to text to my sailing buddy Chris when it feels like it would be a good day to take out the Hobie 18. Maybe fly a hull while we’re at it. Since I work for myself, I get to take a break to go sailing every once in awhile, just like I “get” to work seven days a week, something I tend to do, thanks to the fact I have a home office and there are always projects due. It’s a good thing I like what I do.

I have occasional meetings with clients in their homes and visits to jobsites that get me out in the world, otherwise I would be largely passing my days in a seated position manipulating pixels on a screen. That’s right – hour after hour . . . pixels.  I say it that way to elicit sympathy from friends, but I know better. I move lines this way and that way, but in those lines are human life itself. I am no more merely moving pixels about an electronic screen than William Shakespeare was merely creating ink squiggles on a page. There are entire worlds happening in those squiggles and pixels.

During the days that I am fine-tuning the design of a house, my mind lives inside that finished house. I love doing that, tweaking to improve tiny nuances of how a house will live. In my mind, it is a totally real place, complete with shadows and pools of light and footsteps heard and views opening up around corners. Then those drawings get sent out for construction and I’m off to a different project. A fun moment happens months later when I get invited to see the finished house and I’m instantly back in the reality of that house, except this time it’s in dazzling 3D and there is a fascinating sort of deja vu as all that nuance comes rushing back to me.

Lester on his way to the top

Lester on his way to the top

There are endless things to write about even with just my own house. On the north side of my home there is a big picture window right up against our apple tree that lets me watch my big tabby Lester take his usual route up the various limbs until he gets to the launch spot that allows him to access the roof and all the territory it must represent to him. At ten years of age, he is still a totally cool and sturdy cat who likes to explore. This is his house too, known very well to him with shortcuts behind couches and good places to lounge about, out of danger but with good views of the action. There is the also the dog-centric view of my house, more focused on being able to see front yard intruders, and enjoying obscure sources of drinking water found in garden buckets (apparently much more interesting to drink than the usual dog dish water in the laundry room!)

Columns. I have multitudes of them in me. Here’s to ten more years.


April 24, 2014

Back to Mexico

by admin

It was my first time back to Puerto Vallarta since I was there four years ago on behalf of my mom to sell her dream-house to a land speculator. Development forces beyond the control of law had built a big fancy marina right where we had once had our own perfect bit of beach. They ruined it all for us.

Of course I had to go by to see what had become of our house. The new marina was in full flower with rich Gringos tying up yachts and heading out for mid-day cocktails. It was all part of the new “Riviera Nayarit.” I hated to admit it, but the Dark Side did well when they hit on that name.

The architect and the crew

The architect and the crew

I was pleased to see that the house that I had poured my soul into designing and building in 1988 was still standing and actually looked better than ever from the street, with fresh paint and a new tile roof.I had a suspicion it wasn’t all that it seemed, so I approached the wrought iron fence on the side, looked both ways, and was over it with a quick hop. Around back, they had added a chain link fence that was being overtaken by wild bushes. Through the fence I could see the house was abandoned with doors hanging open. The lawn had turned to weeds and then to dead weeds. Our little trees were overgrown and sagging. The shaded back patio, where we had passed many an afternoon watching the wind rise on the ocean, was empty except for dead leaves and a stack of unused roof tiles.

When I sold away the family property in 2010, I let the act of signing become the exact instant that I emotionally detached myself from it all. I would simply cease to care anymore about our dreams of an ocean-side family compound that would serve McKees for generations to come. Now, four years later, I stood looking through the back fence at the results of the intervening years and felt appropriately numb. I had once dared to hope I might leave a lasting mark by the creation of a building made sturdy with stone and brick and concrete.

I lifted myself back over the fence. Waiting by the car was my travel buddy John, former college roomy and general all-around bon vivant. I had just one thing to say about it all.

Let’s go catch some waves.

Within the hour, we were at the big beach at Destiladeras with boogie boards. The water was warm enough; the sets of waves medium high.

After I saw John miss a couple of good waves, I showed him how to have a better ride by tilting the front part of the board down in front of the surging foam of the crashing wave to let it pull you along. Grab a hold of that energy and ride it, I said. Use your legs like a big rudder to steer. The next few waves ended with us up on the beach as the foam receded around us, with John managing to bump his board into mine and laughing like a goofball.

Before the trip, we had separately gone online to check out potential adventures. It was possible to book all kinds of things in advance such as zip-lining, ATV rentals, parasailing, boat trips to Yelapa. But something about that rubbed us the wrong way. Our schedule would become rigid for things we hadn’t even seen. We decided to just work things out as they came. Good move, that.

We became fond of switching hotels every night. It was fun to explore to find the next one. There were plenty to choose from. We tended to like the two and three story hotels a few blocks up from the beach. They were a fraction of the cost of the fancy hotels where tourists like us were expected to flock. (We paid $25 USD for double occupancy at the Hotel Ana Liz.) These hotel rooms didn’t have views. Some rooms had only obscure glass in windows that faced the inner courtyard. As long as the place was clean (they all were) and there were two mattresses and hot water in the morning and evening, we were good. Switching hotels was easy for us because we each had just one piece of luggage, easily thrown in the trunk or walked around the corner to the next hotel.

Sayulita in Nayarit Mexico

Sayulita in Nayarit Mexico

Our vagabond ways allowed for an overnight Road Trip in our rental car to explore towns along the coast. That’s how we found the surf town of Sayulita about forty minutes north of Puerto Vallarta. It was a great little village — just buzzing with restaurants, music and cool places to stay. As soon as we drove into town we knew we wanted to spend the night. Later, when we happened to walk by “Patricia’s Surf School” right there on the beach in the shade of some palm trees, we knew we wanted to take surfing lessons. Did we catch any waves? Oh yes indeed we caught some waves, though we didn’t exactly “shred” those waves. It was thrilling enough to stand and balance on top of all that moving energy, even if it was for just four or five seconds.

When we got back to Vallarta after eleven the next night, we scored a hotel room and then enlisted the help of the night desk man there to direct us to good food nearby that would be open at that hour. We ended up having fantastic pozole soup just around the corner, in a simple little restaurant filled with locals out enjoying a late dinner. The restaurant was open to the street, the brick walls inside were painted with whitewash, and the ceiling consisted of corrugated roofing supported by a few wood beams. There were two fluorescent lights overhead, and there was a soccer game on a TV mounted on the end wall. In other words, it was thoroughly Mexican in every way, including the wonderful food we had there. A man out for dinner with his wife and young kids at the next table recommended we try the pozole soup. We found it to be chunky and tangy and a real treat. Pozole (pronounced poh-SO-leh) is now on my radar of good Mexican food to look for when I’m eating out.

Before the week was out we did it up. We rented ATV’s, snorkeled out by the Los Arcos islands, and parasailed behind a power boat (by launching from the beach to soar up and over the waves for a long flight and then a landing back on that same beach – much more exciting than the Hawaii method of being reeled out and in from the back of the boat.)

It was all great fun. But the moments that ended up resonating deeper in me were the low-key and unexpected ones, like the time we spent on the small sky-deck at our fourth hotel. This little concrete patio was quite comfortable for two. It was accessed by a spiral stair that would surely be ignored by the average hotel guest, which made it available for explorers like us to make it our own. This little patio looked over everything in that older part of Vallarta and was perfect for relaxing at night when the whole neighborhood got mellower and we were invisible in our aerie above it all. Red taillights could be seen from time to time headed up some steep street in the distance. A strip of blue neon highlighted the neighborhood church tower. Every now and then a bus would rumble by. It was like an exquisitely rendered diorama.

The day after I returned home I was strangely listless. I spent that day moping in my office, returning calls and sorting through stacks of papers. Just one day removed from the trip and it all seemed impossibly distant. The week had started with a big reminder about the loss of the happy McKee life in Mexico, but there I was on the last day, floating out beyond the waves and realizing all over again just how beautiful are the pelicans in flight.  Having fun in the ocean for a few days had somehow made everything all right.

Never mind whether there’s a piece of paper that says you’re the owner. You’ve got to show up in order to have the moments. Getting out in the world is what it’s about.



April 24, 2014

Mister Science

by admin

A few years ago my uncle called me from Oklahoma to ask if it was a good idea if he set up his bathroom exhaust fan to empty into his attic, instead of running through a duct all the way to the outside like is usually done. He thought maybe the extra warmth added to the attic might benefit his house in winter.

Not good, I said. The problem comes when the warm moist air from your bathroom meets the colder air in your attic. It will cool and, since cool air can’t hold as much moisture as warm air, the moisture will condense onto adjacent surfaces and make the attic wet. Then comes mold and even rot. He seemed surprised to see his good idea shot down so thoroughly, but was impressed by my argument and decided not to go ahead with his idea. I was quite pleased with myself, applying all that good high school science to make the world a slightly better place.

Most of the science that architects need to know is on the “soft” side. Like digging a foundation an extra foot deep in clay soil to minimize its movement during the wet season when that soil swells. Or planning an overhang at a window to block the steep angle of the summer sun, but allow the shallower angle of the winter sun to come in. I still have a “sun angle calculator” leftover from a class in college that has plastic inserts and a nifty little sliding guide that I can change depending on how far north my building is on the curve of the Earth.

In 1988 I spent six months in Mexico down in the tropics finishing the construction of a house for my parents. With each passing month the sun got higher and higher in the sky until one day in June I noticed that the sun was directly overhead. I had no shadow. It was directly under my feet. I was actually pretty excited to notice that. A sort of “science geek” bucket list goal was achieved in that moment.

There was a time when architects were Renaissance men. Leonardo and Michelangelo were our standard bearers. These were men who were on the cutting edge of both science and the arts. Today it’s difficult enough to master one obscure specialty, much less all of them. These days we have building codes that fill multiple binders. Most architects don’t even do the structural engineering for the their own buildings, a tendency becoming ever more entrenched, and one that a few of us have managed to buck. I think it’s a good thing to know how to ideally position the earthquake resisting elements in a building as I’m laying out that building.

It’s beneficial for architects to at least know about things like acoustics. Why, for instance, good acoustics are achieved when the surfaces of a room are not parallel or at right angles (not always easy to achieve!) This prevents direct “ricocheting” of the sound waves back at you at the ninety degree corners and diffuses the sound more, sending it caroming onto other surfaces before it makes its way back to your ear creating more resonance. Designers of concert halls understand this sort of thing very well.

I know that trees don’t block sound. Many people think they do, and there’s no real harm in getting that wrong, unless you are a design professional getting hired to provide real solutions for real problems.

If stopping sound transmission is a goal of yours, even internal noise like when a bedroom shares a wall with a home theater, you should know there is a type of drywall available today that has a denser core in the middle that blocks sound as good as if eight pieces of drywall were mounted on the wall. Check out if you want to know more.

Another concept to understand is radiant heat, the kind of heat that works without having to warm up the air in a furnace and then blow it around your house. Heat energy passes through space to warm objects. The sun does it to the earth, and radiant heat panels can do it for objects in your house. Radiant floors are much loved by anyone who has experienced them, especially in bathrooms. Alas, we don’t always love the extra cost involved. Nor do we love it if the wrong kind of hardwood floor is installed on a radiant slab and dries out and starts to cup. Use engineered hardwood to prevent this.

And there is the “Low-E” film built into windows these days (“low emissivity.”) This film blocks radiant heat from passing through the glass and is valuable in both winter and summer for keeping heat either in or out.

Houses built in the last ten years have been required to have this energy saving Low-E glass. If you’ve ever been walking through Farmer’s Market in Benicia on the way to your favorite strawberry vendor and suddenly felt extra warmth on your cheek, that was caused by a window on the other side of the street reflecting sunlight with extra heat in it because the glass reflecting it had Low-E film in it. That much less heat is making its way into those rooms!  Impressive stuff, if you ask me. In winter, it will reflect heat back inside. My own Farmer’s Market moment helped make a believer out of me regarding the heat reflecting capability of modern windows.

If you are into earth science, you’ll like the next factoid. Buildings in California are now required to be attached to their foundations with bolts that have extra big strong square washers because the 1994 Northridge earthquake taught engineers a lesson. (That’s right, the lowly washer got promoted to something important.) The Northridge earthquake occurred above an unknown horizontal fault line that didn’t just shift sideways like vertical faults do, but slid a big plate of earth across the top of another, causing an up and down motion like a jackhammer. Much of the damage could have been avoided by extra big strong square washers. So now all buildings in California get such washers.

Whenever I walk my dog on a night when the moon is full, I almost always make sure to check the coastline as I round the corner of West K and Tenth to see if the tide is either way in or way out. With a full moon (or its opposite, the “new” moon) tides become extreme because the alignment of the moon’s gravity with the sun’s gravity will pull a little bit stronger on our oceans and cause them to bulge a few extra feet, thus creating bigger tide effects. These tides don’t directly affect any building I’ve ever done, but I mention it here because I like understanding how the world works and the feeling of connection that results. Think about it. Orbiting celestial bodies many miles away can create something as immediate and tangible to us as ocean water rising up to tickle our toes and wipe smooth our footprints.

Being curious is the best, wouldn’t you agree?


April 24, 2014

Driving like an Italian

by admin


The McKees were passing our second day in the Italian resort city of Sorrento, across the big bay from Naples, with different notions about what to do with our time. We had just returned from a morning visit to the ruins of Pompeii and I was still sort of haunted by the idea of all those lives ended abruptly by something as capricious as a volcano blast. I felt the need to seize the day by doing something extraordinary, so I proposed a driving adventure to the Amalfi Coast, just a few miles away on the other side of our rocky peninsula.

I’d heard that this road is narrow and goes on for miles clinging to the side of the cliff. Photos of the this famous coastline showed pastel hued houses and villas piled on top of each other on the steep slopes, all beside a gorgeous shimmering Mediterranean Sea. It sounded pretty cool to me. I told the family what I knew about it and also how my pal Chris had warned me about the narrowness of the road and how busses sometimes need to swing wide on the tight corners. The females opted out, but seventeen year old Wesley was all in.

I felt quite confident in my Italian-style driving skills because the day before I had learned to hang in there with the manic drivers of Naples while driving many miles through the center of that big city. An attitude shift had occurred in me that day, and I liked it.

For that drive the whole family was in the car, with Melody and I taking turns driving just to share in the fun, while the kids called directions from the backseat using GPS on a smart phone.

On those crowded streets, the act of driving completely consumed one’s attention. Cars jostled each other for the available space; motorbikes zipped in and around the cars. If you were flowing along with several vehicles through the twists and turns and had a slight lead for an opening, you were expected to take it and let the followers adjust accordingly. Everybody would simply work it out – rapidly and efficiently. No big deal. Upsetting the order of things by being meek or overly polite didn’t do anybody any favors. We called it “driving like an Italian” and meant it as a compliment because it required skill and constant concentration to stay in the game.

Now, with this free afternoon available and a desire to seize the day, Wesley and I looked over a cartoon-like map showing our route. The driving would be interesting, the views fantastic. We would somehow find some swimming somewhere over there and it would probably be interesting swimming. That clinched it. We knew we had to go.

The road did not disappoint. The cliffs were indeed steep, the road narrow. And there was a guardrail that instilled confidence.

I did all the driving. That was a rule that came with our rental car, an unflashy but sturdy Opel with a manual transmission that allowed the driver to downshift or gear up depending on the power needed at any given moment.

Wesley was in charge of finding good songs on the radio and recording interesting video clips along the drive. Having good music quickly became a requirement. Most tunes were current hit songs in English; others were pop songs in Italian. As long as the music fired us up, we let it stay. If it lagged or the Italian DJ took too long between songs, a tap of the “seek” button gave us a new tune. It was remarkable how those songs energized our situation. Perhaps it was our situation that was energizing those songs. Either way, we were having some fantastic moments from our life and there was a cool soundtrack to go with it.

And so it went, Wesley staying sharp on the music and me staying sharp on all the turns in the road, happily passing slow moving cars presumably driven by timid tourists, both of us cracking wise about all sorts of things and laughing big.

the Amalfi Coast

the Amalfi Coast

Somewhere beyond the town of Positano, we found a parking space right next to a narrow stair headed down the cliff. Out of the car, everything seemed still and restful, especially all that blue water hundreds of feet below. We followed the stair downward as it wound between houses and walled gardens. Finally nearing the bottom, we could see we were headed into a narrow cove with very steep rocky sides. Around the last turn of the stair we saw a wide concrete ledge that had been added at one side of the cove just a few feet above the water. Eight or ten people were there. Most laid out to catch some sun. A few boys swam about. It felt sufficiently public for us to join in.

Along the steep rock of the cove, there were no waves; just the slow rhythmic swell up and down of the ocean surface. We could make out big rock faces under the surface that disappeared into deep blue.

Wesley found a ledge part way back up the stairs for his big leap in. I decided to dive in because I’m not very good at it, and the challenge makes it feel like even more adventure. One instant of plunging down headfirst with arms in front, and then the beautiful shock of the cool water, so salty and energizing.

We repeated this a couple times and then Wesley found a way to get out of the water that was much more fun than using the built-in rusty ladder. Treading water alongside a rocky ledge, we would kick and thrust ourselves upwards right as the ocean swell lifted us to where we could hoist ourselves partway onto the edge of the big flat rock. There we would brace ourselves in a precarious balance, barely hanging on as all that water then retreated backwards off that rock and worked mightily to pull us back into the sea. After five or six seconds of enduring this powerful waterfall, the water was gone and we could easily heft ourselves fully onto the big flat rock to stand up, enjoy the warm breeze and then head up for another dive in to repeat the fun.

In this way we passed a half hour. Then back up all those stairs to the car for another supercharged drive, this time back to Sorrento where we would join Melody and Gwenna for dinner. The day sufficiently seized.


October 29, 2013

Yosemite to myself (sort of)

A government shutdown closes national parks to (just about) everybody
by admin


When my son and I and a co-worker of his arrived at the Yosemite entrance gate it was dark. A big electronic sign on a trailer was parked to the side of the empty ranger kiosk. Its message alternated between “PARK CLOSED” and “DUE TO GOVT SHUTDOWN.”  The fluorescent lights were on at the restrooms. We slowed, looking for someone to tell about our special circumstance. We’d practiced our spiel on the drive: “We’re with Anderson Burton Contractors here for the cabin lifts at Curry Village.” It had the advantage of being the truth. Still, it wouldn’t do to stumble over the words at the key moment. Seeing no one, we continued into the park.

I had been invited by Phil Joy to tag along on a work weekend at Yosemite Valley where he and his typical crew of six workers that included my son would be setting down some of the hundred year old cabins onto new foundations in Curry Village.

I’m a big fan of Yosemite (a.k.a. John Muir’s Great Temple – a title that works for me), but I didn’t want to make such a trip just to watch other people work. Plus, we would be going up on a weekend during the government shutdown and that seemed somehow ominous. About a half a day later I finally began to understand exactly what that stupid shutdown would do for this trip – it was a chance to experience Yosemite Valley without people in it. Truly once-in-a-lifetime stuff. I wanted in.

Wesley in Leidig Meadow

Wesley in Leidig Meadow

Since the eateries in the Park would be closed, I asked Phil and Celeste if I could help out by preparing meals for the work crew. In this way I would “earn my keep” as a contributing member of the team, and still have plenty of time between meals to head out into the unpopulated valley. So I packed an ice box full of food, as well as my backpack tent and sleeping gear and loaded it all into my son’s car.

After passing through the abandoned entrance gate with the surreal electronic sign, we drove the miles up and then down into the valley. We had not seen a soul or even a moving car for the last hour of driving.

The turnoff to Bridal Veil Falls had a “road closed” sign, so we continued to drive up the valley through the forest. After half a mile, I couldn’t stand it. I had to get out of the car and experience the reality of where we were. I asked Wesley to pull over and we got out and walked between the dark silhouettes of the pine trees until we had a clear view of the enormous rock face of El Capitan, looming so huge in the dim silver light of the half moon. All was silent. Overhead the nighttime sky brimmed with stars. It all felt so peaceful and void of human energy. We stood there, quietly taking it all in. Yes, we had the valley to ourselves.

Several miles of driving later, we arrived at our worksite at the far end of the valley in the cluster of cabins and cabin-tents called Curry Village. It was there my dream of being solo took a hit – there were people here. Quite a few, actually. This was where the park employees were waiting out the shutdown. As I would discover over the next two days, they were all content to stay in Curry Village, thus leaving the other ninety-five percent of the valley almost completely empty of people.

Visions of setting my tent on the lawn of the Ahwahnee Hotel, or on the riverside at Housekeeping Camp with a view of Half Dome, were replaced with the more practical solution of making camp next to Phil’s big flatbed truck loaded with tractors and such. It would make us as legitimate as possible. As a backpacker of many years, it was easy setting up the ol’ Sierra Design tent in the dim light of a nearby streetlamp. Then I noticed a group of three rangers standing together in the distance next to their three ranger cars, just watching us for several minutes as we made a point of going about our business as un-guilty looking as possible. When they walked up and questioned us, we got to use our spiel on them. That worked to validate us, but the older ranger sure didn’t like the way we were improvising our accommodations like this. Since nobody had a better idea, we were begrudgingly allowed to stay.

I was up at seven the next morning to get breakfast started on a big camp grill Phil set up next to his camper. I scrambled eggs, Phil fried bacon, Celeste did the rest, and a hearty breakfast was produced for the boys. After clean up, I was free to explore.

October 12, 2013 Yosemite Valley with no one in sight

October 12, 2013
Yosemite Valley with no one in sight

As soon as I left the Curry Village area, the number of people fell to almost zero. At least it felt that way. I could hike on a trail near the main road and not experience another human or car for ten minutes or more. Even when rangers drove by, they didn’t seem to care about random hikers. A favorite spot was Leidig Meadow with its view of the spectacular granite cliffs both up and down the valley.

For lunch, Celeste and I laid out a big array of fixings for sandwiches. The guys showed up in their hard hats, grubby but happy that they had already managed to lower three out of the five cabins. The food got good reviews too. All of us were pretty happy with how our day was going.

That afternoon and the following morning before we pulled out, I made sure to get in my explorations. On those few occasions when I would pass by another soul doing the same thing I was doing, we would never acknowledge each other – not even eye contact – because it was simply understood that we all wanted to keep our solitude intact.

Truth is, being alone in a beautiful setting like that wasn’t much different from a good afternoon backpacking, except for the fact that I happened to be in the crown jewel of wilderness locations. What was the better way to enjoy this unique situation? By focusing on the idea of how rare it was to have this place to myself and then prop my camera on a log to take a “selfie” of myself in that setting, suitable for bragging? Or to simply stay in a sort of Muir-like reverie and appreciate the beauty? It was the same dilemma of the social media generation – do you climb the mountain to see, or do you climb it to be seen?

Before we left on Sunday I took one last visit to Leidig Meadow.

Phil and crew

Phil and crew

Some trees had riotous yellow and red colors. The big waterfall at Yosemite Falls was dry, and much of the Merced River was placid like a pond. All typical of autumn. Birds were the prevailing sound – the occasional trills and caws.

I was happy to have had the chance to see the place in this mode, but honestly, this sort of peace is available as soon as you get off the beaten paths. No government shutdown required.

October 29, 2013

My day at the America’s Cup

by admin


Steve and Wesley headed to the 2013 America's Cup

Steve and Wesley headed to the 2013 America’s Cup

My son Wesley and I decided to go watch one of the America’s Cup sailboat races happening in the waters off San Francisco, and do it from our own boat out on the water. Our boat is a Hobie-18 catamaran, one of those zippy little two hulled boats that become very fast when the wind comes up. Spray will fly, one of the hulls will lift out of the water and one of us will hook on and stand outwards from the side of the boat to provide a counterweight to the wind. I find it marvelous fun to do this, flying along sideways over the waves, alternately crouching or stretching out, completely sensing how my body movement controls the power of the boat this way. I become an extension of the boat, as it becomes an extension of me. I love those moments.

The 2013 America’s Cup is also sailed with catamarans. They are huge. Seventy-two feet long and forty-six feet wide. On my little cat, when we change directions, the two of us switch to the other side by kneeling and scooting over. On the big AC boats, the crew of eleven sprint across a taut net stretched between the two hulls.

The mainsail is really a high-tech carbon fiber airfoil, more wing than sail, larger than a 747 wing turned straight up. This wing produces so much driving force that the boats rocket across the water in a strong breeze, vastly exceeding the speed of the wind, going almost fifty miles per hour. That’s fantastic speed for a sailboat. They like to “fly a hull” like us Hobie sailors because once the hull is out of the water, its drag is eliminated and speed is increased. They’ve figured out how to lift both hulls out of the water so that the entire 13,000 pound boat is flying along several feet above the water, supported on a hydrofoil the size of a surfboard extended down into the water. Amazing stuff.

Our big day started at the boat ramp of the Berkeley Marina under overcast skies and winds so light that we had to paddle down the channel, awkward at best on a catamaran. Soon we were starting to overheat in our wetsuits and feeling like the day was going to be a big bust. But I had faith that San Francisco Bay would deliver the goods. I was right.

Soon enough the breeze freshened and we were under sail, aimed right at Angel Island. The sun burned off the overcast; the wind and waves began to build, and Wesley was hiking out to control our lean. Race number eight would be happening just fine.

A few long tacks later, we arrived amid a big flotilla of boats of every size next to Alcatraz seeming to bob in place waiting for the race to start over two miles away near the Golden Gate. Most boats were using their motors to move about at very slow speeds just to be able to steer and avoid each other and to keep from crossing over the course boundary marked by a few official boats flying America’s Cup red flags. And then there was us, with no motor, with our mainsail positioned to catch the least amount of wind, occasionally sheeting in the sail just enough to get sufficient motion to steer around and between the various boats floating across our path. As the smallest and most maneuverable boat out there, I was happy to do most of the dodging and weaving. Hobie Cats hold a special place in the hearts of many sailors, who remember them sort of like the sailing equivalent of muscle cars from their youth, so we received a few shouts of encouragement.

I occasionally threw a glance towards the Golden Gate bridge in the distance to confirm that the race was happening. The two leviathans, known by us simply as “Oracle USA” and “the Kiwis” were distant, but so big that we could at least see they were on the water and know that we had a race coming our way. We knew we wouldn’t be able to watch every nuance of the race by showing up as a spectator at one end of the course, but we would certainly be immersed in the reality of it. The wind and swell affecting the race would be the same wind and swell that rocked our boat. By being next to Alcatraz we would be as close as we could be to one corner of the race where some of the turns would happen.

Some minutes later, we watched the two boats grow in size until their speed and scale could finally be comprehended. They loomed larger and larger until tiny human figures could be seen moving about onboard as they worked winches or pulled lines. It was unreal.

The Kiwis passed first and angled away from us and then Oracle USA swung a wide turn around the big inflated buoy just a hundred yards from us. Part cruise missile and part magic flying kayak, it rocketed along eight feet above the water with a thin fin sticking down that left a white trail of spray in the water like a contrail. It was cool as could be.Kiwis race 8 - Copy

We watched them sail off and then decided to sail into an even better viewing position for their return to this end of the course. I sheeted in and let the wind grab us. As we zipped along the edge of the course boundary, a motorboat displaying an America’s Cup flag could be seen trying to catch up to us. “Hey, it’s Chris!” said Wesley. On board were the familiar faces of Benicia sailing buddies Josh R who was steering, and Chris S who was aiming a camera our way. There were big smiles all around and we tried to yell things at each other for a bit. Soon they zipped off to resume their duties.

When the two big boats returned to pass us one last time on their way to the finish line we were surprised to see Oracle USA with a solid lead, a rare sight in those early races before Oracle found the extra speed that would make the later races more competitive.

Later I saw video highlights of the drama that occurred at the far end of the race course that almost ended it all for the Kiwis when they were caught in a rare moment of bad coordination. Two grinders in control of the hydraulics that shape the curvature of the big wing had lagged in their response during a quick tack and the powerful wind sent their huge boat slowly teetering up and sideways.

Beware of falling boats- New Zealand almost reaches a tipping point

Beware of falling boats-
New Zealand almost reaches a tipping point

It was sickening to see the underside of that craft so unnaturally exposed this way and then see it worsen as it continued to roll upwards towards a terrible tipping point while the crew frantically worked their controls to stabilize it. Then the big boat came back down. Catastrophe averted, just barely. The American boat had to cut to the right to avoid being struck by the falling boat, but kept up enough speed to take the lead and then the race.

In the days that followed, Oracle fine-tuned their boat to find more speed and also caught up to New Zealand in tactics and technique, making the races more even and eventually favoring the American boat. Hey, I just wanted to see good close races.

For me, it’s been easy to secretly pull for the Kiwis as they became the true underdogs. Their team is made up almost entirely of New Zealanders and they are sponsored by a bunch of New Zealand businesses. Team USA is paid for by computer giant Larry Ellison. As in Silicon Valley, the talent is mostly hired from abroad. The fact is, there are hardly any Americans on Team USA. The Kiwis are a plucky bunch, taking on Goliath and winning until Goliath woke up and became determined to do better. A New Zealand win would thrill that tiny nation, whereas an American win would hardly be noticed here. But then, a US victory would keep the next America’s Cup in San Francisco, with more opportunities for future adventures like I just had. So I could be happy with either outcome, and that was fine with me.

October 29, 2013

Pompeii, Italy – my kind of town

by admin
Pompeii and Mt Vesuvius partners in one of the grand human stories

Pompeii and Mt Vesuvius
partners in one of the grand human stories

All four McKees wanted to see the legendary ruins of Pompeii, the Roman city preserved just as it was on a random summer afternoon in 79 A.D. when nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted and covered it in twenty feet of ash. In this way a time capsule of a day-in-the-life of a typical Roman city was left for the world to later discover. Despite a few tunnels created by looters, the place was left mostly intact until a small archaeological exploration in 1599 discovered it and then a much larger expedition arrived in 1748.

I was reading these facts aloud to Melody as I perused them on my smart-phone in the lobby of our hotel. It was the night before our visit to the famous site and I wanted to bone up on things.

The next morning on the half hour drive to Pompeii, I filled in the kids on the tragic back-story. The volcano erupted with hot ash, not hot lava, I explained. It was more like a Mount Saint Helens and not like a Hawaiian volcano.

For the first couple hours the eruption was experienced as a growing cascade of ash and pumice falling from a darkening sky. But then came the big blast in the form of a dense cloud of searing hot gasses and ash that rushed down the side of Mount Vesuvius and dropped everyone wherever they stood or crouched. Modern scientists call this the pyroclastic flow. It killed an estimated fifteen thousand people instantly.

Scientists know about the timing and the other details because history has a good eyewitness account of that day from Pliny the Younger who watched his uncle Pliny the Elder sail back into the danger zone to help evacuate people, only to die for his efforts. Young Pliny, eighteen at the time, wrote about it twice in letters to relatives. He went on to become a noted poet. Today volcanologists refer to these volcanic mushroom clouds as “Plinian.”

Those first hours of the dreadful ash and rock raining down put in place the classic conundrum to either “shelter in place” or “flee the scene.”

What might you have done? Of course, hindsight makes that an easy answer. But it seems pretty reasonable to me for someone to want to seek shelter under the tile roof of their own home as hot bits of rock and ash rained down. But it was those residents who quickly hurried away who lived to see another day. Those who waited in the city, or spent time packing up valuables, experienced a quick but horrific death by intense heat.

A bad earthquake seventeen years prior had damaged the city and required much repair work but was not seen as a sign that this known volcano was becoming active again. They didn’t have the science to make that connection. Instead these were people who had staged “Vulcanalia,” a festival to the roman god of fire, exactly one day before the volcano erupted and killed so many of them. Two thousand years of distance provides us with a detachment and a sense of fatalism about this tragic day, but it had to be absolutely terrifying and horrible.

We arrived and I found us a shady spot in the gravel parking lot. We walked past a souvenir stand, rented self-guided tour handsets and waited in a short line for our tickets.

Once inside, we used our maps to find our way around to the highlights. First was the local Forum, a smaller version of the one in Rome, with much open space and surviving colonnades and various walls. In the distance beyond was Mount Vesuvius, so tranquil and innocent seeming. All the ash was long gone.

Most of the city we saw was comprised of long narrow streets with one-story high brick and stone walls on both sides. There were entire city blocks of this, with an occasional turn in the road. The streets were paved with rounded rocks in that sturdy Roman manner, with a raised narrow sidewalk on one or both sides.  While most walls stood, most roofs were not there. Lots of blue sky instead. Second stories, described by the droning voice in our tour handsets, were no more.

We toured one of several public bathhouses disbursed around the neighborhoods. Its arched ceiling was intact with carvings and tiled murals on the walls. There were a series of dipping pools that had been heated from below with varying degrees of warmth. Living around the corner from such a bathhouse seemed like a fairly livable arrangement. Like something I could abide.

At the bakery the archaeologists had found eight loaves of sliced bread left on the ledge next to the kiln. I guess that ash really did work as a preservative.

There was an amphitheater and an arena in different corners of the city, both very intact, and all within an easy walk of the houses. Yes, a satisfying life was possible in such a city as this.

Before they figured it out, the 18th century archaeologists were perplexed about voids they found in the ash with the bones of a human skeleton inside. Then someone realized these voids were created over time as a human body rotted away and the bones remained. By injecting plaster into these voids, these latter day explorers created a sort of sculpture that commemorated the death pose of the victim – a mother crumpled next to her child in one case – with a skeleton enclosed in the plaster, sometimes visible at the edges. Several of these plaster mummies could be viewed beyond a chained off area. Their lives unfairly cut short, the fate of these victims now includes being photographed again and again all day long by tourists, like some sort of sideshow.

A Pompeii citizen's last pose

A Pompeii citizen’s last pose

We got to explore a typical dwelling and that’s when I finally came to understand this special place that is Pompeii. Most of the buildings and houses turned inward onto private courtyards (or peristyles, if you want to use the official word for these four sided colonnades) with entrance openings onto the street that often showed off a painted mural or a tile mosaic image in the floor. These people had the same humanity in them as you or I.

I had a moment alone in one of these courtyards when I let myself slow down and watch the sun stream down a row of columns just like it did every day, saw the cool shade in an open room beyond – a sleeping room, I imagined – and realized that this moment I was experiencing – this sun and shade and cool repose – was exactly how it had been for the souls who had occupied this home all those years ago. The relaxed living available in the recesses of this house seemed so tangible. I admired my Pompeian counterparts for their choice to live like this and was happy that their home life had achieved a sort of immortality here at this famous site. I could live this way, and happily so.

And that’s when Pompeii became not about the dying, but about the living. I decided that this city was a memorial to human life. With that, I was off to join my family around the corner at the next highlight, a place called the Poet’s House.


October 29, 2013

Croatia visited

by admin




My daughter went to Italy in June for a month of “UCLA Summer School Abroad.” The rest of the McKees used this as an excuse to join her when she was done in July. We would meet her in Rimini, a city on the northern end of the Adriatic Sea and spend the following ten days on some sort of trip in that part of the world. Figuring out exactly where to go became a project. Mostly fun, but with some chores to it as well.

Planning began months and months before. A large map of Europe was pinned on the dining room wall and little tiny post-it notes were added to mark possible cities to visit. Then came weeks of mulling.

The city of Dubrovnik on the Croatian side had always been on the bucket list, so a driving tour around the Adriatic seemed like a solid possibility. Two guide books and a Rick Steves video encouraged this idea. This big loop around the Adriatic Sea would let us see some of the coastal cities of Croatia and a few Italian cities we had never visited before.

Through some simple math and the use of the enlargement button on my office copy machine, I printed a California map at the same scale as my Europe map and thus determined that the Adriatic Sea is almost the exact size of California. This allowed us to instantly understand the magnitudes of the various driving segments. The McKees like the challenge and freedom of motoring about in strange lands.

We could see that the drive between the city of Trogir and Dubrovnik, for instance, would be like driving from Benicia to Redding – about three hours. Happily, the highway system in Croatia turned out to be quite good and efficient. We would have plenty of time for lingering in the delightful coastal cities of Croatia. Online I found an overnight car ferry available at the bottom leg of our grand loop that would link us back up with Italy, and this ferry had cabins available with four bunks. Perfect.

Eventually all the cities were nailed down and dates assigned. was visited, user reviews read, hotels and apartments selected and reserved. Our usual unscheduled day and night was added in the middle of the trip to allow improvising. Our excursion would highlight several beautiful coastal cities of Croatia with the Italian cities of Rimini, Sorrento and Naples added.

And that’s pretty much how it went down last month.

Gwenna greeted us at the curb outside her hotel in Rimini, my little girl all grown up and traveling internationally on her own. We had a day to check out her favorite haunts established during her four weeks of summer school in Rimini, including restaurants, a really good gelateria, the big beach, and her favorite leather shoemaker. Rimini is not that remarkable as Italian cities go . . . . but it’s still pretty great. That says something about Italy.

Driving across the border from Italy into Croatia, the immediate difference seemed to be the extra consonants added to every word or sign. The further south we traveled, the rockier the countryside grew, always with low trees and bushes.

Thanks to modern smart phones with GPS (and a data plan we set up for international use that didn’t have rapacious rates!) we easily made our way to our first stop in Croatia, the little city of Rovinj (roh VEEN) on a hill overlooking the Adriatic Sea. Smart phones sure have opened up the ability for driving with confidence in foreign lands.

Rovinj was the little jewel it was promised to be by Rick Steves – an ancient city with narrow lanes winding around a hill with a church at its top. Restaurants and shops were tucked in everywhere. And the tourists had turned out (mostly eastern Europeans, Brits and Germans) filling the streets and restaurants on this warm summer’s eve. An early morning walk the next day on the empty streets became a nice way to experience the city without so many people in the way.

The next day we drove on to the old walled city of Trogir (TROH geer) another cute city on the water, this time on a flat island with a stone fortress guarding the west approach.

City of Split in Croatia . . . a Roman Palace runs through it . . .

City of Split in Croatia
. . . a Roman Palace runs through it . . .

After that was the city of Split, a particularly ancient city on the coast that had a distinction I found fascinating. It was a city that had taken shape over fifteen hundred years inside the remains of a huge walled fortress that had served as the palace of Roman Emperor Diocletian. After the fall of Rome, invading hordes sacked a nearby Roman town, causing the survivors to take up living in this huge abandoned walled-in fortress on the water. Centuries of living there have resulted in buildings of various eras added over time, creating compelling juxtapositions of old buildings mingling with even older fragments of Roman grandeur. This place became my new favorite set of Roman building remnants. (That ranking lasted for only three days until we made our way to Pompeii in Italy – the Roman city in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius tragically preserved as a sort of time capsule by twenty feet of falling ash. But that is a tale to be told next time.)

Dubrovnik side street

Dubrovnik side street

Our final city in Croatia was Dubrovnik. We had saved the best for last. It was another walled city (oh what big sturdy walls.) It had some hills to it, cute little back streets, but also some open civic spaces as well. I was told by family members that four cities like this in a row had created a certain blurring of memories. I couldn’t argue with that, even as I remained fascinated by the human scale in the tightly configured living arrangements required in those crowded walled cities. There were ingeniously placed stone stairways that set off little courtyards. There were arches and half arches created where two buildings joined each other overhead. All the street were paved with white limestone polished to a sheen by many years of foot traffic.

The next night was our ferry ride back to Italy. We all found it quite satisfying to be ensconced in our own ultra cozy bunks with little reading lamps that didn’t disturb our bunkmates. Croatia had been a delight and I would recommend it to any serious Europe traveler. But it was good to be headed back to Italy, that most pleasing to visit of European countries. Tomorrow we would be driving ourselves across the bustling city of Naples, among many cars vying with each other for the limited street space. It was there that we truly learned the ways of driving like an Italian, and became better people for it. That also is a story for another day.

October 29, 2013

Elsie Robinson’s Benicia

Daily life of 1890's Benicia comes to life in hard-to-find memoir
by admin

victorian-clipart-1  In 1883 a girl was born in Benicia, grew up there, and came to make sense of the world from what she saw. At age nineteen she moved to Vermont to marry into a family of strict puritans and years later returned to the West to barely make a living digging underground in a gold mine. Faced with exhaustion, hunger and despair, she willed herself to try to find a way out. At age fifty she wrote about it all, and wrote well.

Elsie Robinson was her name. Her book was published in 1934. After hearing about it from my friend (and fellow writer and Benicia history aficionado) Donnell Rubay I bought a copy that I found online and read it. I quite liked it. The more I thought about it in the days that followed, the more certain I was that I would write about it here. Nineteenth century Benicia comes alive in those first chapters, and it seemed like fans of Benicia should know about it.

But then I learned that the Benicia Library had only one copy that they kept as a reference book that couldn’t be checked out. So last month I bought three of the four copies I found online on Amazon and donated them to the Benicia Library. The used copies weren’t too much of a strain on my bank account, and now anybody in town can easily read a compelling firsthand account of life in old Benicia.

The book is titled “I Wanted Out!” and, if that seems to make a negative statement about our little town, it really is more an account of Elsie’s state of mind throughout most of her life wherever she went. Truth is, she remained proud of her upbringing in “rowdy Benicia,” a colorful little city that then seemed to be on the edge of civilization.

For the first two chapters, daily life in old Benicia is made real. No matter how much you think you can envision 19th century Benicia (such as the big train ferry, the brothels along the waterfront) for true-to-life detail we must turn to the Book of Elsie.

A sample:

“At the other end of the street the ‘dobe dirt gave way to barnacled piles that reached far into the bay. There was a ferry slip at the end of the long pier – a great ferry, ‘The Solano,’ largest, then, in the world that took the overland trains across. Frequently she lost her way in the fogs and went blustering around like a blowsy, disreputable old harridan until she fetched up short in somebody’s backyard.

“But of far more moment than the Solano were the certain small, shuttered shacks built along the piles – or anchored to them in ‘arks’ . . . the homes of the ‘red light girls.’ All day the tide came and went beneath those shuttered houses. At flood, the water slobbered and clucked under the rotting beams. At ebb, the stink of the flats oozed through the yawning cracks.

“Then the sun set in a great swash of scarlet, and the color ran in veins of copper and crimson over an oily indigo of mud, and suddenly, through shutter chinks, there broke the glow of lamps, the crackle of laughter, and tinkle of mandolins – and out across the swaying planks, teetering on their high heels, minced The Girls on their evening parade.

“A long, rough street that began with a convent and ended in a bawdy house. I loved the convent. But there was something about those bawdy houses . . .  I never knew which end of the street I preferred! I still don’t know!”

The young Elsie goes along to get along. The older wiser Elsie finally learns what sort of internal strength is needed to take command of her life. Her life from her birth in the 1880’s until she wrote about it in the 1930’s spanned an era of big change in the world, especially for women, and she realized it. She was a keen observer of things, with a modern sensibility and a breezy way of writing about it. That’s what kept my interest, even after the growing-up-in-Benicia part of her story ended. (If only the savvy fifty-year old Elsie could have had just five minutes to talk with the nineteen year old Elsie about some of her choices! Yikes! But I suppose every life has its share of that.)

There are some highlights unique to her era. We get to experience the “terror and beauty” of what it was like that first night when an electric light was added to her house by her older brother, as she sat with her family in awe, wondering just what was this mystical energy inside that intense white glow, so astonishing after a lifetime spent with the dim mellowness of gas lamps.

We experience the effort that is required to don formal Victorian clothing. Aunt Elsie lived it and then wrote about it with a frankness we moderns can appreciate.

But for we Benicians, the most interesting reading comes from seeing our little town come alive on the page. Many of our favorite things from past and present are there: the convent at the top of First Street; the oversized Victorian houses known as “follies” by the locals; the overgrown gardens; the wood boardwalks on the sides of First Street that provided places underneath for kids to play hide and seek and for drunks to sleep off a bender; the city blocks loaded with saloons; the Graveyard (what we now call the City Cemetery) where she made her midnight deal with God to be shown all that life had to offer as long as she wasn’t a cry-baby about it. Both parties lived up to that deal.

That’s probably enough said. If you want more, go online to and then  click on “catalog and accounts” (key step!) and then type “I wanted out” in the search box. Your options for getting the book will be displayed. After that you just wait to be contacted by the library when it’s available – no extra effort required.

October 29, 2013

Q and A with the high school kids

by admin

A few years ago I had the chance to show images from my Europe travels to an A.P. Art History class at Benicia High that my daughter was taking. The very nice and enthusiastic teacher Ms. Thomas invited me to come and hold forth about architecture in any way I wanted for one class period. I created a power-point slideshow by using photos from my 1980 trip done as a college student and the more recent visits made with my family, as well as some online images and maps added for good measure. For about an hour I got to express enthusiasm to a room full of college-bound students, mostly girls, about some of the most amazing things ever built. It was the fun side of being a teacher with none of the hassle.

Chateau in Chenonceaux France

Chateau in Chenonceaux France

I started with photos of the Parthenon in Greece, including the approach so carefully laid out by the ancient Greeks on the side of that rocky mount so that a visitor’s first view up-close of that perfectly proportioned temple would be just right. Then we were off on a walking tour through the narrow winding streets of Rome that opened up into the grand oval of the Piazza Navona, one of the world’s premier outdoor urban spaces. The long oval shape of this piazza is leftover from a two-thousand -year-old Roman stadium. No profound urban planning was involved in the decision to save this shape – it was simply easier for Romans of the Middle Ages to create new buildings on the leftover ruins of the old stadium.

Notre Dame du Haut

Notre Dame du Haut

This was contrasted with Le Corbusier’s amazing free-form church built in the 1950’s on a little hill in the countryside of Ronchamp France. And then we visited a massive gothic cathedral in Koln Germany made from gorgeous hand-carved blocks of heavy stone stacked so high they seemed to soar. And so it went.

1748 Nolli map of Rome

1748 Nolli map of Rome

I finished with some extra minutes leftover at the end of the period, so Ms. Thomas suggested a question and answer session. I was pleased to discover that my audience of almost-adults had not yet acquired the reserve that makes grownups detached and too polite to dig in.

Piazza Navona in Rome

Piazza Navona in Rome

How many projects had I done in Benicia? A pause was needed to figure that one out. In my head I multiplied my usual yearly number by the twenty years that I’d been in town and arrived at my answer. “Almost two hundred,” I said. There were audible gasps.

“I suppose that does seem like quite a few,” I added sheepishly. “That’s just about one a month. Hey, they weren’t all big projects, you know.”

How much money do I make? That is shared on a need-to-know basis. But since this group was still figuring out what to do with their young lives, I figured they needed to know, so I spilled. I explained how there was quite a wide range to the rate of pay, from junior drafter on up. “It all depends on your skills and how much value you can bring to your clients or your employer.”

Was I ever going to design a house for myself? Sure.

            And what would it be like? Hmmm. I’d never allowed myself to think too much about that. I then gave a response that I didn’t even know was waiting within me, and a fully formed answer came out, as if I talked about this sort of thing all the time.

“My house will be eclectic,” I said. “Not of any one style. It will be so over the top and filled with ideas that it will all somehow work.”

I knew as I was saying this without time to filter my thoughts, or edit myself, that something significant had just happened, at least in my own little world. The next question came before I had time to ponder what it all meant.

How hard is the math to become an architect?

“People often have the wrong idea about that,” I said. “If you can handle the equivalent of simple algebra you’ll do fine. And that’s mostly just for the licensing exam. After that, the pressure’s off. But it does really help to have a good and fast command of basic arithmetic and be able to think in an orderly way.”

“But the most important thing is this: If you’re good at getting your work done in school, that bodes well. I didn’t realize this till recently, but I think one of the best things schools do is to develop your muscle for getting stuff done. No matter what field you end up going into, this is a good skill to have. Term papers and major school projects serve as a warm up for real life. With my project load it’s like I have an unending stream of big things due, one after the next. People coming through for other people is what makes the world go round. It’s certainly the key to letting you control your own destiny.”

Time was up, so I thanked Ms. Thomas and the class for having me and received some polite golf applause in return. Everybody got up to go. I gave my daughter a smooch and walked out, strangely content.  For one class period I got to pretend to be an architecture professor and hold forth about some of my favorite things. There was also that little soul-stirring moment when I pictured myself designing my own house. All in all, not a bad way to pass an hour.

October 29, 2013

Who will speak for design review?

by admin


Before a building permit is issued, all plans get reviewed for compliance with building codes and local zoning rules, but a select few are also required to undergo something extra called design review. By degrees, the fates of cities are determined in these review sessions.

Every city worth its salt has a panel of design reviewers. These are architects, builders and usually a landscaper who volunteer their time as city representatives to discuss a proposed design with the applicant and possibly request improvements during a public meeting to make sure the design is as good as can be under the circumstances.

If it sounds intrusive, that’s because it is. It adds time and expense to an already burdensome approval process. At some level it is surely a violation of the owner’s right to use their property as they wish.

It is also happens to be the best defense a city has against mediocrity and missed opportunities. Projects will get better because of this process. It’s really just a form of peer review.

Houses are usually exempt from design review (except in historic districts and in extremely fussy cities like Lafayette.) This works because owners of private residences have an emotional connection to their property and can be relied on to be strong advocates for the architectural integrity of their homes.

Developers of commercial properties, on the other hand, tend to focus on the “bottom line” and are much more likely to propose bland and bloated buildings.

As much as I will passionately defend the value of a fully functional and healthy design review process in Benicia, I will also rally to prevent design review from being required on all private single family residences.

Since 2008 I’ve been a design reviewer for Benicia, but for twenty-five years before that I was on the receiving end of such sessions. I know what it’s like to stand on the sidewalk outside various city halls with my clients after such meetings to sort out what just happened, who said this or that, and what our next move should be.

Sometimes the design is praised. Other times the comments seem to sting. When I’ve been on the receiving end of a good design review discussion it felt like I was being challenged to do better. In the end, I always found a way to make the project better, whether it be adjusting a roof line or rearranging the massing of the building to better serve the site and the neighbors. Sometimes my client ended up saving money as a result of this – not always, but sometimes. You’ve got to love it when “win-win” happens.

When I’ve been on the other side of the table, as a design reviewer dishing out the remarks, I’ve always tried to let the applicant retain their autonomy as the project designer. Maybe a weakness has been overlooked. Up until then, it’s likely that the architect and the developer simply reinforced each other’s belief that they had a near flawless concept. In that closed loop, it can be quite valuable for a fresh viewpoint to enter and pierce that smug assurance. I say that as both giver and receiver of such input.

Design review in Benicia had a watershed moment in 2005 when the Design Review Commission was disbanded and morphed into the HPRC (Historic Preservation Review Commission), a highly debatable move that no one seems to remember ever debating. I was told it may have been done in the name of “streamlining” an approval process, or something like that.

It appears that the City Council might soon take a new look at how design review is done in Benicia. It will be just one aspect of a possible reexamination of how commissions work. The latest idea being floated is to split up the design review chores so that the HPRC would handle the review of historic buildings while the Planning Commission would review the non-historic buildings. Sounds perfectly reasonable at a glance, but I’m quite certain it will weaken the quality of buildings being built in town. It will be the worst of both worlds – still requiring the applicant to go through the “hassle” of the procedure but with less benefit for the citizens who live with the result.

Splitting up the architects currently serving as design reviewers in Benicia will diffuse the synergy that occurs from the sharing of ideas. There are valuable insights that result from the back and forth that occurs. In my years of attending these sessions, I’ve seen an extreme viewpoint of one reviewer get moderated by the group. This is quite valuable to all parties involved.

I volunteered to be on the Historic Preservation Review Commission because that’s where design review happens in Benicia. I do the other HPRC duties faithfully, but it’s the design review that is my calling. I’ll be much less interested in putting in all those hours on a commission if I know that half of the design review activities are going to another commission. I’m not alone in this.

There is a limited supply of people living in our little town with the background to do design review. And fewer still who are willing to volunteer to take on this extra chore in their busy professional lives. Don’t drive this small pool away.

Perhaps “floating” design reviewers who can move between commissions to help with specific design review items might make this work. Couldn’t reviewers be “on call” to show up at key meetings on whatever commission to help make good decisions?

There may be obscure wonky reasons that this is hard to arrange. Designing city government is not my strong suit. But I do know that there are real reasons that this is a good idea. Barring this, for heaven’s sake, don’t mess with the current arrangement if it means splitting up the design reviewers. If we’re going to require property owners go through design review (with the a month or two added to the approval timetable and the extra drawings and fees required) we may as well have good design review come out of it.

There are important forces at work here, and it can’t just be about trying to save the city some staff time if it means selling out our city to bad design. Streamlining is fine, but having a sidewalk dining patio on a First Street building (for instance) that isn’t just tacked on but is properly laid out to support the social life of the entire city for decades to come might be more valuable than saving a developer a month of waiting time.

This time around, let’s get it right.

June 24, 2013

Features I want in my next house

by admin

I’ve seen some cool stuff in houses in my day. And by that I don’t mean the high-tech things like computerized light switches or the ability to turn on my hot tub from my smart phone while I’m in an airport. I suspect that these gizmos are destined for obsolescence, like the abandoned intercoms you see mounted on walls in forty year old houses. I tend to be more impressed by the simple things that will be useful and enjoyed for countless generations.


Medicine closet

Like a medicine cabinet, but much larger. I visited a client’s home that had a master bathroom with 5′ wide mirror closet doors which concealed a twelve inch deep bank of shelves. Finally, a place to easily store and access all the extra Costco containers of glucosamine. At last, a place to layout your array of ibuprofen, extra shaving cream and so forth. This is going to be one of those things you’ll wonder how you ever lived without.


A window seat that serves the soul

The best way to do a window seat is to make sure it is as comfortable as possible. By that I mean you lay it out as if you were going to live there, with no window sills that protrude into your back and maybe even a sloped backrest. It should be long enough to stretch out with an extra good view of the outside world and be wide enough and padded enough to take a nap in. Good light (natural and also from a light fixture switched right there) is also critical. Maybe a window ledge wide enough for your goodies like reading glasses.


Cell phone and car keys drop zone

A built-in desk near the center of family life capable of receiving the daily pile of mail without being overrun. This area need not be large or confused with a home office capable of laying out big projects or running a business, but is set up to handle the daily placement of car keys and a cell phone charging area. Maybe with a built-in file cabinet for the central family files and records. I had a client once dub this spot “mission control.”


Horizontal laundry chute

Laundry rooms are being located nearer the source of the dirty laundry these days in the bedroom wing. Immediately adjacent to the Master Closet is a fine choice. It’s possible to provide a pass-through opening with a cabinet-style door. The laundry basket will never have to be carried ever again. It merely gets passed through this door. Dirties go out. Cleans come back in.


Windows positioned for the breeze

The alignment doesn’t need to be fussed over. Just make sure there are a few windows on the upwind side and a few more on the leeward side of the house that are easy to access and open. The positive air pressure on the one side and the negative pressure on the other will keep the air moving.


Plenty of clothes hooks

I want a master closet with a big array of hanging hooks, in addition to the usual clothes poles and shelving. I know this might not be for everybody, but it would work for me. It seems a good way to store ones favorite pants loosely without wrinkles and very easy to access. The few hooks I have now in my closet are well used. Why not have more?


Upgraded shear walls for earthquakes

Homes built in California today have plywood nailed tightly to the studs of certain walls to allow those walls to help hold the house from swaying in an earthquake. These shear walls are the key to resisting earthquakes for single family homes. They can be made stronger by nailing the edges with more nails and using thicker plywood and increasing the size of the steel hardware that holds the ends of the walls down. None of that is especially expensive. I figure that if I do this well enough, I can then forego earthquake insurance, assuming that by the time an earthquake damages my strong house that the insurance industry is going to be wiped out paying for the millions of weaker homes with much more damage. Spend the money on prevention instead of on repair work.


Secret room

A “blind cut door” is a door that matches the wall paneling so well that it doesn’t even look like a door. I have one now that I duck through that leads to a secret attic store room and is a perfect place to store valuables and all manner of things.


The sound of rain on my roof

I want to be able to hear the rain and have it lull me during naps and the reading of books. Skylights provide this sound. So do metal porch roofs. I suspect this ageless patter has been enjoyed ever since humans found a way to be out of the rain and experience the joy of being sheltered from the elements. It’s in our DNA. This sort of thing will enrich my life beyond what a gadget could ever do.

June 24, 2013

Bogart slept here

A night spent in downtown Benicia
by admin


I was signing in last weekend for an overnight stay at the Union Hotel when I saw a sign on the front desk:


“Union Hotel – the hotel of choice in Benicia for:

Grant, Sherman, Bogart, Reagan.”

            I looked over the names. “So Bogey really stayed here, eh?”

“He did,” said the young woman behind the counter. As I was toured around to see my various room choices, the Humphrey Bogart room was pointed out to me, though the room was actually named after a flower, like all the rooms in the hotel were. Bogey’s room had a big window that looked down D Street to the water and the Carquinez bridge. “He didn’t ‘Bogart’ that view, did he?” I wanted to ask, but decided instead to act like a mature person.

I was here to scout a unique place for Melody and me to stay in town for one night because our daughter was up from UCLA on a weekend singing tour with twelve of her a-cappella singing mates and we agreed to surrender our entire house to them for Friday night. Happily, it also happened to be Melody’s birthday, giving me an excuse to surprise her with the whole B&B experience. It would let us be tourists in our own town.

Back at home we got ready by packing little overnight kits. When the girls arrived we pointed out all the extra bedding and food that we had arranged for them. After they sang happy birthday (with much harmony) to Melody, we bid them adieu and drove off to our downtown nest.

By now night had fallen and First Street was aglow with every tree wrapped tightly in little white lights. The elevator up to our room was sort of old and creaky, which was fine by me because it added something I like to call “atmosphere.” It’s how I remember hotel elevators in far-off places like Amsterdam or Prague. Maybe we won’t be touring Europe this summer, but by golly at least we’d have a downtown Benicia adventure this weekend.

Our bedroom on the corner of the third floor had views down both D and First Streets. There was a four post bed and other pieces of mostly antique furniture. We sat down and took it all in. Somewhere down on D Street there was the sound of someone laughing. We looked at each other and declared it time to start our evening.

First stop was Bookshop Benicia. We had the store to ourselves except for the young dude behind the counter. I told him how I do my part to keep a bookstore alive in our community by ordering all my books through Bookshop even if I first shop for them online. As usual, I paused at the table with the handwritten reviews poking from the tops of various books. Can I write a review? Customers have done that, he said. I told him I would do that someday, but only for a really deserving book.

After that came Lucca’s and then Sailor Jacks where clam chowder was procured. Then we walked to the First Street pier in the chilly air, looked at the dark cold water reflected so choppy in the light of a street lamp. Brrr! When we turned around to walk back, I switched sides with Melody to stay on the upwind side in order to continue to block the cool breeze from my warmth-seeking wife.

After another elevator ride, we were back in the stillness of our room. I sank back into the couch. Outside one window a tree was aglow with its many little white lights. Its position alongside our window made it seem like one of those neon signs that would buzz outside a nameless hotel room in a noir crime story. Peter Lorre might just walk in and pull a gun, but then Bogart would easily overpower him. You’ll take it and like it when Sam Spade gives you a slapping!

Then my attention turned to the older pieces of furniture in the room and the Maltese Falcon was gone and I was back in the world of old bureaus and wallpaper. The Victorians ruled this roost for decades. Since 1852 this hotel has been here. Many a corset was donned and doffed in this room. That was the actual reality of this place.

As the need for more privacy beckoned I let the heavy drapes swag over each of the three windows. When we turned out the lights I discovered how easy it was to create a mellow night-light effect by letting little slivers of streetlight shine through open slits in the drapes onto the sides of furniture and gave the room a mellow glow like candlelight.

At eight the next morning we were downstairs to have our breakfast in the big dining room. We both ordered our eggs scrambled.

Melody looked over a little brochure with a map about Benicia History that I had picked up at the front desk. She described the two massive train barges that ran offshore for decades. “Thirty trains a day on average.” We both thought it over.

“That can’t be just thirty cars,” she said. “They really do mean thirty whole trains.”

“More than one per hour,” I said, imagining the near constant activity and the loud rumbling train sounds that must have always emanated from the foot of First Street.

I watched as she took a knife and rubbed cold butter onto her warm toast.

“Grant and Reagan no doubt stayed here before they became president,” I mused as I stirred my coffee. ” Reagan probably stayed here as Governor. Did you know that he was originally supposed to get the part of Rick in Casablanca? Then the universe intervened and proper order was restored.”

“Let’s get back so we can see the girls before they leave,” said Melody. She offered her unfinished orange juice to me.

“Of all the B&B’s in all the world, you had to walk into mine,” I told her.

We slid our chairs back and I flipped a five dollar bill onto the table as a tip.

“Here’s looking at you, kid,” I said before draining the last of the juice.

“So then let’s go home and look at our kid,” said Melody. And with that, we were gone.


April 16, 2013

My kitchen remodel a year later

by admin
McKee Kitchen

McKee Kitchen


It was just over a year ago that I finished my kitchen remodel. I’ve now had many months living with the real-life impact of all my decisions and am happy to report that it’s actually worked out very well, though I still sometimes pivot left instead of right when going for the silverware. That’s just me getting over a twenty year run in the old kitchen. Now we don’t have to squeeze around one another at the sink if the refrigerator door is open, and that is a beautiful thing.

Guests seem to like the new design and coo over aspects of it. In particular, there are positive reviews for the wide eyebrow arch over the sink counter. At the center of this arch is a rack to hang pots and pans. Because it’s above the sink, we can hang wet pots there to drip dry which I find very useful. Storing these pans out in the open makes it easy to quickly access them. It’s the look of a working kitchen, kind of like you would find in a farmhouse or like the kitchen that belongs to that retired chef guy in the movie “Tortilla Soup.” We have a few cupboards with doors to hide the visual commotion of things like cereal boxes and syrup bottles, but our plates and bowls are stored on open shelves. It’s useful and ergonomic that way and looks pretty good, we like to think.

I have clients who want kitchens with places to put everything away and hide it all from view. They want mixers on platforms that retract and disappear under the counter. That’s a completely valid approach, and we design accordingly. But I have a few who want the emphasis on immediate usability. To them a well-functioning commercial kitchen has a certain beauty in spite of (and perhaps because of) the visual busyness. If a bottle of olive oil is stored on a stainless steel shelf next to the stove – well, that’s just fine. I suppose my kitchen exists somewhere in the middle of those viewpoints.

Here are some other ideas I tried out in my kitchen that worked out well:

Extra deep counters

This idea is so good that I feel like I’m giving away a trade secret. Where space allows it, you can make the counter an extra 4 to 6 inches deep (resulting in a 28 or 30 inch deep counter instead of the standard 24 inches.) This means that things like wooden knife racks and toasters and such can remain in easy reach along the back, all while leaving us a big counter surface in front for food prep.

This is an especially valuable idea for remodeling all those Southampton kitchens that have an extra wide walking aisle (five feet wide or more) but with limited space to expand the kitchen sideways without messing up a family room or dining room.

You can even use standard cabinets and still achieve this – just have them installed slightly out from the wall and run the extra deep counter over the top to the wall.

Deep drawers

We have many drawers deep enough for pots and other random big things. So much easier to open and access the contents than cupboards. This is now pretty standard in kitchen designs.

Undermount sink

With the edge of the sink attached under the edge of the counter (instead of overlapping the top) you can wipe counters directly into the sink because there’s no protruding rim. I chose a large double bowl porcelain sink mounted in the classic farmhouse way (under the counter but protruding slightly out from the face of the cabinet.) I find the porcelain easy to keep clean. Some clients are dedicated to stainless steel and I respect that. Either way, if you add in a tall faucet with a detachable nozzle that can be aimed at any angle or pulled out for cleaning corners of the sink then you’ll have a highly usable sink set detail

Two drawer dishwasher

Our new dishwasher has a big compartment on top and a smaller one below that can be run separately. I was looking forward to the idea of alternating back and forth between the two compartments and thus allow myself the luxury of not unloading the clean dishes all at once but instead just pulling dishes as needed from the clean batch for each meal. Turns out I use the smaller lower compartment only for rare times when there’s too many dishes for the main. But this two drawer dishwasher still is a favorite simply because the constant use of the top compartment eliminates the need to lean over so much to load and unload. This helps make this chore go a bit smoother and that’s a help with that thankless chore. The machine is very quiet too. Just about all the new ones are.

Quartz countertop

This is the countertop material that is like granite, except it’s synthetically made from quartz rock. It’s harder than steel (therefore knives don’t leave marks) and doesn’t require sealing like granite does. Industry names include Zodiaq and Silestone. It comes in a wide variety of colors and speckles, or can be a solid color. Some of these patterns resemble stone but don’t have the continuous veins and swirls that granite does. I personally prefer the more neutral backdrop of the quartz, but I have some clients that really like the extra visual interest found in real stone.

Some other features

A non-electric “air switch” for the garbage disposal is an easy-to-find button on the counter next to the faucet. . . . Cabinet knobs were selected that are smooth without any protrusions that can accidentally hook on cargo pants pockets. . . . We chose white subway tile for the backsplash to contrast with the dark solid counter. It helped avoid a monolithic look and connotes a sort of timeless design.

The life of the design is found in such details. You just need to know what type of kitchen you want.