Housewatch

'Architectural editor' brings constructive ideas together in one place

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By Katherine Salant
Saturday, February 19, 2011

Behind every really good writer stands a really good editor, the unsung hero who offers advice on ways to carve off excess words, make arguments more succinct and populate novels with more-compelling characters and plotlines.

Filmmakers also have editors. Their work is so valued, the movie industry includes it in the annual Academy Awards.

Architects do not have editors to offer feedback on their designs (a service that many critics and owners might suggest is sorely needed). But there are architectural editors whose function is similar to that of an acquisition editor at a large publishing house - their job is to acquire talent and sell their work. Dan Gregory, editor in chief of Novato, Calif.-based Houseplans.com, the nation's largest online home-planning service, is one of them.

Gregory's unusual credentials and depth of knowledge in home design are unequaled in the home-planning business. He has a PhD in architectural history from the University of California at Berkeley, where his studies included two years of studio design with students training to become architects. In a recent interview, he called it "an invaluable experience for understanding how they think."

During the 27 years he was an editor at Sunset magazine, he sifted through the work of hundreds of architects to showcase the most unusual and well-crafted houses in the Western United States, the area of Sunset's editorial focus. In addition to his editing duties, Gregory was involved in the design and construction of real houses. He helped select the architect for Sunset's annual Idea Houses and then worked closely with the architect and builder as those houses were designed and built.

Spectrum of choices

In the three years since he joined Houseplans.com, Gregory has reinvigorated a massive archive of 30,000 plans and added some unusual offerings.

Like any good acquisition editor, Gregory has gone after residential architects whose work he regards as widely appealing. Some of them, he said, needed coaxing to make their work available to a wider public and to homeowners with whom they would not have a personal relationship, while others, including Sarah Susanka, the best-selling author of the "Not So Big" series of books on home design, were already doing this.

A quick perusal of the "Exclusive Plans" section on Houseplans.com indicates that Gregory is catholic in his choices. Tacitly acknowledging that some very gifted home designers are not registered architects, his roster currently includes five designers and 27 architects. Collectively, the styles of the 27 solo practitioners or partnerships run the gamut from traditional Craftsman and Colonial Revival to cutting-edge modern. Each listing posts four or five plans, enough to sense the designer's style and "idea of home." Cleverly, the personal graphic style of each designer is retained in the presentation, which makes it easier to keep them straight, if you view five or 10 in a sitting.

In addition to the work of living architects, Gregory has secured permission from the Environmental Design Archives at U.C. Berkeley to sell the work of three distinguished California architects and one developer. Looking through the photographs and drawings of the late William Turnbull's tiny Sea Ranch cottage (designed in 1980 as employee housing for the Sea Ranch Community on the Pacific Coast, about 100 miles north of San Francisco), Web site visitors will be captivated by the wonderfully playful exposed roof trusses in the interiors. They are the kind of universally appealing detail that most people could never imagine having in their own house. The seriously interested visitor will note that the house is very small (650 square feet) and probably would want to make changes, which can easily be done, Gregory said.

A different kind of box

Beyond these unusual offerings to individual homeowners, Gregory and his new chief executive, Lisa Kalmbach, have more-ambitious ideas. As the home-building industry slowly recovers, they are developing a portfolio of plans for a home-buying public that appears to be embracing a dramatically different idea of "home sweet home," one that is both smaller and simpler than the houses they favored in recent decades. For home builders, this means a dramatically different type of box.

Home builders, especially those that build 10 or more a year, have always gone for houses that were in essence simple boxes that were easy to frame, Gregory said. Over the past 30 years, as the boxes got bigger, embellishments were added - more frills (six-piece crown moldings for huge rooms with 10- and 11-foot ceiling heights), more props (columned "arcade" vestibules for cavernous master suites) and multi-gabled roofs that made a house look bigger and more grand.

Gregory's "simple boxes" for today's market have shapes that can be easily executed by home builders who do not have the skilled carpenters who could deliver Turnbull's playful exposed trusses. Instead, the appeal - like that of an expensive Savile Row suit - is achieved by a consistency in detailing and good proportions. Gregory said that good but simple detailing can create the strong first impression that builders always want to project in their furnished models; it also has staying power. Offering an example, he noted that when the ceiling height is nine feet, which is almost universal in new houses now, using proportionally larger trim around the doors, windows, wall bases and ceiling line, and continuing this through the entire house, not just in the public spaces, will make the spaces feel more comfortable to the owners and give the house better "flow," another "desirable" that builders look for in choosing designs.

Elaborating on features for the 2011 version of the "simple box for home builders," but noting that they also apply to any well-designed house, Gregory said that he looks for floor plans that do not have "dead-end circulation" in the main living areas. For example, a living room with only one entry can become "unused real estate," a luxury that most households today cannot afford.

He also looks for flexibility in the floor plan. For home builders, this means appeal to more segments of the market; for homeowners, this means that rooms can be used differently over the years. Gregory likes designs that can be built out in different ways, depending on how many bedrooms, for example, the homeowner wants.

Gregory also prefers a simple roofline without the fake dormers, multiple gables or steep pitches of the McMansion era, all features that increased cost but did not provide any additional utility to the owners.

Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County; she now lives in Michigan.


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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