September 9, 2014

Remembrance of Times Lost.

‘To delight in the aspects of sentient ruin might appear a heartless pastime, and the pleasure, I confess, shows the note of perversity.’

~ Italian Hours, Henry James.

As a rule, old farm buildings in Ireland are allowed to slide into neglect and decay.  But it is possible to give a simple former farm house new purpose and convert the building into an attractive residence. If only there were more instances of such intelligent recycling to be found.

‘In an orderly country,’ chided the German travel writer and ethnographer Johann Georg Kohl after a visit to Ireland in September 1842, ‘ruins should really not be tolerated. They should be demolished either in order that the material of which they consist can be availed of in constructing new and more useful buildings, or the site that they occupy can be put to different use, or because they threaten to collapse completely and endanger human activity, or because they present an unpleasant sight.’

Kohl believed that members of ‘an orderly, vigilant and progressive human community’ should eradicate all ruins, before he went to note that, ‘In Ireland, the opposite to all this has happened, as it is unique in all of Europe for its many ruins. One finds here a plethora of ruins from all periods of history, like in no other country.’ Furthermore, he remarked, this melancholy condition was not unique to ancient buildings since ‘down to our days every century – one could say every decade – has deposited its ruins on the land. For everywhere one sees a multitude of dilapidated houses that have only recently fallen into ruin but yet seem also to have been built only recently.’

More than 170 years after Kohl made his observations, they remain pertinent.  What is especially noticeable is the gratuitous abandonment of buildings for no apparent reason other than the fallacious notion that they have ceased to be fit for purpose. This is especially true of the country’s older domestic dwellings, ripe for adaptation to contemporary use but instead deserted in favor of something newer – something which will in turn no doubt suffer the same fate. Hence throughout the countryside one comes across a superabundance of farmhouses which with just a modicum of inventiveness and panache could be given a fresh leases of life as an alternative to their more common fate, which is to molder into ruin.

Such might well have been the fate of our project had it not been discovered by the present owner. It is in a style that had remained almost unaltered over the previous hundred years.  Unoccupied for more than half a century its isolation seems to have discouraged anybody else from settling there. Today that remoteness gives the place its appeal, as do the surrounding vistas of rolling fields and an uninterrupted view of the Sea below.  During the summer months, the owner has been known to descend to the shore for a swim.

Aside from inaccessibility, another reason why the building would not have won widespread favor is its understated design: unlike smaller and more overtly endearing thatched cottages, the average Irish farm house was never known for superfluous embellishment. Indeed this particular example possesses an unpretentious simplicity typical of the genus. It rightly celebrates the virtues of clean, un-fussy composition.

But before these can be celebrated an extensive program of refurbishment is called for.

August 17, 2014

Palimpsest 2.

Commenting on the uses of architecture for relaying history, the critic Lewis Mumford wrote: “In a city, time becomes visible.” In old buildings, history becomes not only visible but tangible as well.  The years can be felt in an exposed-brick wall or a worn stone floor.  In inhabiting old structures-dwelling underneath hundred-year-old posts and beams-these residents are not just living with history, but living within it. There is a pervasive feeling that something has come before.

The designer John Saladino talks about the Roman philosophy of building one element on top of another, creating “layers of history.”  This preservation of history-not in a museum but in the midst of our daily lives-is the result of converting old buildings, as well.  Underneath the veneer of the new is a glimmer of the old.  

To describe the effect of the old layered with the new I use the word palimpsest, an ancient term for parchment that was used and erased when the original text was unwanted, then reused.  Intriguing traces of the old text were always still visible-and often legible- under the new.  Being able to “read” parts of the old structures underneath the new architecural “text”-seeing a smooth plaster wall reach up to meet roughhewn beams-relates past and present in a visceral way.  Respecting the history in these buildings is key to a sucessful conversion, and when the conversion works-when a balance is struck between saving the character of the old and adding the practicality of the new-the result can be far more exciting than anything newly built.

I find the back-to-basics simplicity of a barn fresh and appealing. Every barn comes with its historic fabric woven into the old beams.  You need not travel to the UK to find gems like these since they are everywhere an agrarian society was present.  But, some of the most outstanding conversions are British barns.

The emphasis of this project was to provide a high quality low carbon barn conversion.  The sustainable design features consists of underfloor heating and a highly insulated interior with triple glazed windows and doors.  The rainwater from the renovated barn, and new extension, is drained to a rainwater underground collection tank that allows a free supply of water for the whole garden.

May 20, 2014

To lime and play on moonlit nights.

Welcome to guilt free living...

The house had been built (300 years ago) with local hand cut coral stone.  We were able to utilize natural resources to make the house as efficient and sustainable as possible.  Active & passive systems were implemented to create airflow & reduce interior air temperatures.  A water conservation and catchment system was added to filter 100% of the house’s water needs.

April 25, 2014

Edith’s World

Born in 1862 into an affluent and socially prominent New York family, “Old New York,” a magnificent city in a Gilded Age, was to become the focus of Pulitzer-Prize winning author Edith Wharton’s literary and lifelong obsession.  She called it “incurably ugly,” yet found it endlessly fascinating.

Nothing would have interested James more than watching his two friends Wharton and Fullerton as they circled each other. How wonderful is this room? And that dress? "Extremely" being the only acceptable answer of course.

“It was the old New York way
of taking life “without effusion of blood”:
the way of people who dreaded scandal
more than disease,
who placed decency above courage,
and who considered that
nothing was more ill-bred than “scenes,”
except the behavior of those
who gave rise to them.”

~The Age of Innocence. 1920

March 30, 2014

Building with awareness.

Far from being dull and lifeless, the arid landscapes of the American southwest offer the richest color palettes in the country. Umber, ocher, copper, silver, gray and gold are ancient colors offered by the earth. Purples are found in deep shadows and bursting sunsets, while blues appear in the endless skies and vibrant turquoise stones.

Pueblo homes have been around for thousands of years. They were built by indigenous people out of adobe, a material made of packed earth, clay, straw, sticks, and stone. Basket loads of adobe was plastered on walls and dried in the sun. The resulting thick walls provide superior insulation.  Adobe an inexpensive insulator is used in modern architecture as a passive solar collector. The sun's heat travels through the adobe slow enough to reach the interior as night falls, heating the house through the night.

In order to preserve the surroundings and native flora we maintained minimum site disturbance. The terrace is designed to maximize view and minimize heat gain. There are energy efficient low-e windows and use of sustainable materials throughout. 

March 2, 2014


...the designer must be able to see - make a concentrated effort to absorb the essence of the project. Seeing is a very difficult thing to do. Most people look at a lot of things but never see anything.
Looking is emotional; seeing is an intellectual process.
~Albert Hadley

It takes patience to design a compact space that feels like a joy to return to rather than a compromise.  Designed for a young professional it is tailor-made for frequent overnight stays.  The one-room space (50 sq m) was sub-divided to allow for a bathroom and kitchenette to be added.  Practical lay-out decisions ensured that the space feels relaxing and easy to live with.

February 28, 2014

"The great use of life...

... is to spend it on something that will outlast it."

~William James, landscape architect

Few gardens last, for all that.  One garden I admired so, was on Jones Road in Walnut Creek, California, now lies under the tracks of Bay Area Rapid Transit.

It was a wonderful place, with about 1,000 old roses.

There were albas, 



and damasks

There were teas, 


China roses, 


old hybrid teas, 


and those talismans of the old roase garden, 'Marechal Niel', 'Gloire de Dijon', and on pillars, the ramblers 'Veilchenblau', and 'Violette'.  At the entrance to the place was a tall hedge, dappled with the red carnation-like flowers of 'F.J. Grootendorst'.

Of course the owners were rose snobs, and I found them engaging for this reason.  I always thought there should have been a sign at the garden entrance: There is no Peace in this garden.

They disliked the new hybrid tea 'Peace', a rose that rose lovers got down to on their knees.  The irony was that 'Peace', with its heavy blunt bud, many petals, and short stout stem, resembled the old hybrid perpetuals they were so found of.

And what rose snobs they were.  They could never stand 'Chrysler Imperial'.  Imagine naming a rose after a motor car!  I once suggested that they might include in their collection of striped roses 'Careless Love'.  They were appalled.  It sounded like something that might have occurred in a Chrysler Imperial automobile.

I loved getting calls from them when this or that old rose came in bloom.  The always rang me faithfully when the once-blooming 'Mme Gregoire Staechlin' was out.  Often compared to the thinnest of porcelain tea cups, delicate pink splashed crimson, their climbing specimen splayed on a fence was a wonderful sight to see. They called it Madame Gre-whar Steak-e-lin, giving me each spring breathless messages over the phone, "Doris, better hurry, Steak-e-lin's in bloom."

When I take the train to Concord, after leaving Walnut Creek station, I press my face to the window, wondering if I can catch some small bit of rose green down by the gravel track.

February 13, 2014

Two-room attic living.

As a single person, you're the master of your own castle. When your castle consists of two rooms keeping the decor simple offers a more organized, clutter-free space. Good interior space planning can make a small space appear more open, spacious and airy. By choosing the right colors, textures, furniture and window treatments, you can create a comfortable space.  Small rooms are hard enough, but add lots of angles to work around it might seem impossible. The paint color you choose and how you use it plays a major part in creating a relaxing and appealing space. A few other components, such as furniture, accessories and lighting help to make a small, choppy space feel spacious and relaxing.

January 23, 2014


For those among the dizzy echelons of the, still surviving, English Landed Gentry, there is but one sentence which, when delivered by their young, is enough to make the ancestral suit of armor in the hall fall to the flagstones in a dead clank: "Mummy, I'm going to be an interior designer."

The idea of choosing how one's surroundings should be decorated, or, God forbid, moving with the times, is a truly alien concept for the landed gentry.

As Grayson Perry, Britain's most celebrated potter/transvestite, said, "Brits have an in-built class GPS."

The upper classes he tells us "have their taste dictated to them by their ancestors beyond the grave".
One of our most cutting political put downs came when Baron Jopling dismissed Michael Heseltine, a self made millionaire, with the cruel barb: "The trouble with Michael is that he had to buy his own furniture."

Hyacinth Bucket: "...the Bouquet Residence, the lady of the house speaking!  If there's one thing I can't stand, it's snobbery and one-upmanship. People who try to pretend they're superior. Makes it so much harder for those of us who really are..."

January 6, 2014

DvH Design projects 2013/2014

“Small is the new sexy.”

I am passionate about the design of small spaces.  This passion extends to my own house.  I live, by choice, in a small house (one thousand square feet) and a vacation house (six hundred square feet), and I aspire to nothing larger.  Small spaces are more convenient, less expensive, and less wasteful of scarce resources and, perhaps, more architecturally expressive, more elegant, more comfortable, and ultimately more human.
My passion for small dwellings dates back to about age twelve when I was enchanted by a tiny but elegantly engineered Gypsy caravan. This small space had something-refinement? modernity? -that made spaciousness seem quite beside the point.  It made anything more than one perfect room seem dowdy and unnecessary.  The passion was ignited, and nothing in the following decades has extinguished it.
I have been critical of the prevailing values in the realm of building and architecture, and when accepting a project I always propose alternatives.  Small dwellings represent a range of housing types and architectural styles. The differences are inconsequential but what they have in common is that - small is the new sexy.

Design like you give a hoot.


DvH 2013/14 04    Oxford, UK (attic conversion)

DvH 2014 05    Mayfair, London, UK 
(attic conversion) 

DvH 2013/14 06  UK (conversion)