Sippican Cottage

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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Architectonicking for Dummies

So we’re required to perform a dash of architecture now.

I know you’ve been watching teevee again and think architecture is some dude with gray temples wearing a corduroy sportcoat with leather ovals on the elbows, sitting at a big slanted desk covered with giant sheets of paper defaced with incomprehensible lines. But it ain’t. Architecture is a process in three parts, or should be, but rarely is.

I’ve heard it expressed as head, heart, hand, which isn’t bad, but smacks of live, laugh, love signs, so I’ll give it a pass if you don’t mind. Architecture as a practice requires you to meld structural concerns with aesthetic choices grafted onto the ergonomic demands of the occupants or passersby, depending on whether you’re designing a snout house or an obelisk in the park. To simplify further, it should be sturdy, look good, and accommodate the people that use it. Architects don’t even try to do that (their job) anymore. A few of them manage two out of three. Most don’t care about more than one.

In a house, the engineering part is a trifle. If you need any heavy duty engineering to build a house, you’re building a dumb house. Engineers who design their own houses forget about the occupants (their wife) and any visitors and indulge their penchant for cables and girders and spans and buttresses and wires and pipes and lots of other unattractive things they’re supposed to hide in the walls. Interior decorators with a hand in their home’s design start thinking about throw pillows on day one, and work back from there. And full-blown architects ignore the occupants entirely, figure the customer can hire an engineer to worry about how to hold up the roof no matter what they come up with, hire someone to buy throw pillows when they’re through, and simply scrawl the weirdest thing they can imagine on their sketchpads or computer screens. See Frank Gehry for the most virulent strain of this carbuncle. To confound the public further, computer nerds started calling simple coding “architecting” to make themselves sound important, and make my eye twitch when I read it.

I’m working on very small batches of architectonicking (take that, code monkeys), it’s true. I’m hunched on a stool in a shower stall, trying to make this little spot attractive, sturdy, and useful. Designing stuff like this is more like juggling than a linear process. You have to keep all three balls in the air at the same time. You can’t worry about appearance all the way through, then pick up the other two balls off the floor. Each affects the others.

So we’re using 3″ x 6″ porcelain subway tile again, because it’s a fundamental building block, sturdy, attractive, and cheap. Really cheap in this case. They’re imported from Turkey and cost fourteen cents a piece. So I forgot to mention that because of our circumstances, I have to add a fourth dimension to architecture: the budget. That’s something no architect ever gives a shiny shite about. He’s always spending someone else’s money, so money is no object. I’ve got to use whatever’s handy and cheap to achieve the other three design parameters. It gets daunting sometimes.

Subway tile is pleasant, cleans easily, and looks sane to most everyone. It produces an unforgiving grid, however. It’s a field tile. The edges are up to you to deal with. I’ve got to deal with the join between the floor and the walls. The floor slopes, remember? For a change, it’s supposed to slope, unlike all the other floors in my ramshackle house. But if I lay a full course of tile along the floor to begin the wall, the whole wall will be slanted like a major newspaper. What to do?

Builders used to understand that transitions from one thing to another were best handled by overlapping them with things like moldings. Otherwise things get fussy. They also knew that everything, including houses, looks better with a definable head, Fettermans excepted. Things look saner with a definable base to sit on, too. And too much of a good thing (subway tile) is still too much.

So we took some leftover tile from bathroom floor and cut it on a wet saw, and made a sort of baseboard, It’s a rich, grayish black. We put it on both sides of the curb, too. We snapped a (level) line on the wall where the field tile would begin its march up the wall, and measured down from that to conform to the slope of the floor. It looked nice, was more durable than field tile, and was better than throw pillows for softening up the join between the wall and the floor.

But you have to think ahead. The niches needed to be integrated into the grid scheme of the field tile, too. We lined the interior of the niches with more leftover pieces of the floor tile. The top of the tile baseboard and the edges of the niches get a brushed metal profile. These are sorta new, and a godsend for people like me. Fitting bullnose tiles around niches like that is difficult, and expensive, because you have to buy all sorts of bullnose shapes to accomplish it. These profiles look clean and cost way less. We also embedded a profile on top of the black baseboard tile, to define the transition from baseboard to field tile.

Part of determining where the first course of field tiles would begin was measuring carefully to make sure the niches would break about in the center of the courses of tiles. We’d installed them one tile-length from the corner to make that work out as well as could be expected, too. We’re going to tile all the way up to the ceiling, to confuse the spiders who used to live up there. We put a brushed metal profile at the top of the field, too, instead of having a raggedy grout line along the ceiling. Then we turned our attention to the side walls.

I started on the left-hand wall first, because it was easier than the right-hand wall, which has the shower head spout and mixing valve in it. That would require more measuring and cutting and fussing. I figured, if I’m struck by lightning halfway through, I’d feel silly talking to the patron saint of architects, Frank Gehry’s little brother Beelzebub, knowing that I could have had an easier last day on earth than I did.

[To be continued. Please tell your friends about Sippican Cottage]

One Response

  1. Ah, you’ve nailed one of my pet girlie peeves: throw pillows. Every hotel room and rental condo I’ve ever visited seems to be infested with ’em. My wife, bless her heart, immediately tosses them all into an empty corner. Don’t even get me started on my other peeve: frickin’ CUPCAKES.

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