Here’s a draft of the intro I wrote this morning. Summer 15 – draft
Living Outside the Box: Why AuthenticOrganic Architecture Is Worth It
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Audience: potential clients (you can do this too–do it!), students of architecture (to understand clients’ pov), architects, artists, contractors (to avoid the temptation to cut architectural corners), my handful of precious blog followers?
While we were planning and building the Lapp RiverHouse people asked why were we going to all this time and trouble. It was a buyers’ market, they said, and enormous tract houses were selling for as low as 400 grand in gated communities. Assuming that the RiverHouse cost more than it did, they wondered why didn’t we just buy one of the grand houses that stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the bluffs above the San Joaquin River. If we wanted to build our own house, why didn’t we just choose a pre-fab design and move in in six months?
In response to our friends’ curiosity, each month for two years we had a Full Moon Friday potluck by the river. In all seasons and all weather, sometimes a dozen, sometimes close to 100 people came to see the see the progress and ponder our choices.
Perhaps the answer at this point in our lives was: Once we’d lived outside the box, we couldn’t pack ourselves back into one.
Back in the mid-80’s, my late husband Dennis Lencioni and I were living in the downstairs apartment of a drafty duplex on a cattle ranch. We were in our twenties; he had a thriving horseshoeing business, and I was finishing my teaching credential. The brilliant aspect of that cinderblock box we lived in was that it was free rent in exchange for caretaking the cattle and the owner’s mother upstairs, which started us on a habit of radical saving and investment early on (I include that part of the story for my children and their generation). It was also exciting when bats would fly in the gaping cracks, and Grady the supercat would pounce from the bureau and land with a winged rodent in her claws.
I had a hobby in those days of drawing (mostly impractical) floorplans (I chose art over math in high school and college). On paper, I converted a grain silo on the ranch to a 4-story dwelling (my studio would be a glass and screen cylinder atop the silo with an azure-blue Christo-esque parasol overhanging 20 feet all the way around). On paper, I added on to the cinderblock in a variety of ways, usually spanning the creek.
I ran long distance in my twenties, and one morning, as I crested the hill at Rio Vista and turned back onto Trimmer Springs Road, I spied my grandmother, Evelyn Ball, in her red hooded sweatshirt with the hood on, looking for all the world like an elf, tying white bows around the oak trees. As a wedding present, Gran, who lived next door, gave us 7.6 acres of riverbottom land she’d wanted to build on in the 60’s, but was told it was unbuildable. That last semester, I spent more time drawing floorplans than studying or wedding planning.
Dennis was a pilot (mostly because he used aerobatics to let off steam), so we spent a lot of time circling around and around over the wooded wetland property looking for high ground. He’d tip the plane sideways, and I‘d take photos and develop them, then we’d study how dark or light the foliage was—lighter meant drier. It was clear that the center of the plot was higher, and we started hacking our way in like Amazonian pioneers. We started with machetes and a chainsaw, but switched quickly to a tractor with a mower, which we backed in to devour the water willows and Himalayan blackberry. Scratched and sticky with plant sap and sweat, we’d proudly survey the few feet of progress we’d make in a day. Finally, we broke down and bought a big Case backhoe, which cleared the way to an acre of high ground.
When we found out the flood zone required us to build up 3 ½ feet, I was stuck. Because we were in the middle of a forest, I wanted two stories for the long vista over the canopy, but I didn’t want a large house (and we were frugal to a fault), so the plan was small, but tall. Since I didn’t really know how to draw an elevation in the first place, my attempts looked like silos with corners or a tilted A-frame. Our dear friend Scot Zimmerman, a photographer (although the friendship dated back to when he sold Dennis a used BMW), had recently divorced and spent many evenings in our cinderblock burrow. Witnessing my frustration, Scot said, “You oughta talk to this guy I take pichers for” (Scot is both smart and wise, but he does say “pichers”).
We talked to Arthur Dyson, who had apprenticed with both Frank Lloyd Wright and Bruce Goff, in his office on “P” Street in Fresno in the old Ice House building for two sessions talking about anything but architecture. I’ll explain that planning process later because it’s important to my point. We hired Greg Potter, who had been a draftsman for Dyson as our contractor.
A year and a half later, in 1987, we moved in. Gran died that New Year’s eve of cancer. When Gran died, I was pregnant with Nick, who was born in 1988, and Dani was born in 1989. When they reached first grade, Dennis had a big cattle opportunity, and we moved up to Gran’s ranch house.
Having lived in an open floorplan, we de-walled the Ranch House with the help of Boback Emad, who had apprenticed with both Dyson and John Lautner. Then, in the late 90’s, we wanted to re-orient it—no one could find the front door because the driveway approached the garage and the electrical box from the east. We couldn’t see people arrive because the windows faced north and south only, and the kids were getting bigger. I wanted them to bring their friends to our house, rather than them going elsewhere.
We consulted Art Dyson for the remodel, but the bids came in consistently four times over our budget, and Dennis sort of stomped away from the project. My ability to render an elevation had improved, and ultimately, a handyman, Bill Barnes, executed the remodel based on my drawings. I never felt good about that exchange because I couldn’t un-ring the bell of one Dysonian angle, and I recognize how wonderful Dyson’s proposed design would have been, with its multiple clerestories, a sheltering overhang over the courtyard, and a glass-on-glass corner toward the long vista with a garden inside and out. When Art and Audrey Dyson came for Dennis’ memorial service in 2003, I had too many other things on my mind to ask or notice what he thought of the amateur design.
Sometime around 9/11, tragedy struck our house too as we slowly learned that Dennis had contracted a brain tumor. We took the kids out of 8th grade and traveled to South America for January and February of 2002, and he died during their freshman year of high school. We three hung in there on the ranch. I sold all but a dozen first-calf heifers, a bull, and Den’s best horses. The kids kept up with their music, Dani with her sports. I was teaching at the college. Dennis had told everyone, as he was dying, that after a year I should start dating because I was “the marrying kind.” He was probably right, but I wasn’t the dating kind, so I ultimately signed up for e-Harmony and met Greg Lapp, a musician and high school choir teacher. We married right before the kids’ senior year, and we all lived in the ranch house until they went to college.
All this time, I’d been renting out the first Dyson house, let’s call it the Creek House (although it’s had many names—more on that later), so, with just the two of us, we sold the Ranch House and the cows, and Greg and I moved ourselves and Greg’s 1902 Steinway grand piano into the Creek House. As much as Greg loved the Creek House, there was no getting around the fact that I had built it with Dennis. Plus, the piano took up the entire dining area and part of the living room, crowding the entire downstairs. We were used to having concerts for 50 in the ranch house (which had grown to 3,000 feet with the remodel; and the living room, where the piano had been, had been converted from the two-car garage). I agreed, in theory, to moving, but I said it had to be more lovely than where we were living, which pretty much limited us to something on the river. I felt claustrophobic in any house we looked at (and there were few riverside homes and no riverside lots available for over a year).
One day in 2006 we were kayaking down the Kings River, as we would any chance we had, and we spied the back side of a For Sale sign on a lot with grass that came down to the river. A red barn stood to the side, but there was a wide open plot with direct access to the road. We pulled the kayaks up, spun around the middle part of the property a few times, memorized the phone number on the sign, kayaked quickly down to our car and cellphones, and met the realtor an hour later, still in our water shoes and made an offer before the end of the day. When the owners accepted the offer a week later, I started drawing floorplans, this time incorporating the Steinway and a long wall cupboard to store 50 black padded folding chairs. Limiting the design to exactly 2,000 square feet, I tinkered with the design into the night. I proudly left my masterpiece displayed on the counter (remember, there was no dining room table—no room for it). When I woke up later than usual, I was dismayed to see Greg drawing and erasing on my plan. He’d made little graph-paper-and-cardboard piano, dining table, bed, and futon to scale, and was altering my design! (I was always the creative one!) Once I looked at it, though, I had to admit his changes were good ones, and I’d have to get used to living with another creative in the house. Fortunately, our ideas complement each others’; in fact, it’s good to have a check and balance.
We went to Arthur Dyson with our joint floorplan. Partly because of the remodel fiasco, and partly because the man’s a genius, we didn’t look anywhere else. The planning and building process are detailed in the book, but just the highlights—it was a 6-year process. Funny, that’s about how long it’s taken to settle down and complete this book, which has transformed and gone back to the drawing board many times as well.
Some people don’t care so much about their surroundings, although I’ll submit later in the book that surroundings influence us whether we know it or not. But different people care about different things. We have a friend, a brilliant musician who loves architecture (he calls the website apartmenttherapy.com soft porn), who warns us not to waste special cheese or wine on him because he can’t tell the difference and doesn’t care; similarly, I am rarely fazed by even the most exquisite of desserts. Some people are that way about architecture. Like appraisers, they ask: how many bedrooms? How much closet space? Is there a formal dining room? Some people like to designate a discreet purpose for each separate room, while I will advocate for multi-use spaces.
There are aspects of our choices that are personal, obviously, and we have made many compromises in the name of cost, but as I show the house to more and more people, I see the notion of how to choose is worthy. I know I am a little claustrophobic, and clutter makes me nervous. I don’t like air conditioning or white mechanical noise, and I prefer natural light to artificial. Some people are more private and some more communal. Certainly different settings demand different reflections of that setting. Even I chose a more cozy house in the middle of a forest, and a house with radical fenestration in the foothills above the river. If I lived in a city, I’d turn my back architecturally on the street and the neighbors and, as many urban architects have done for generations, focus on a sunny courtyard. Skylights—I’d have skylights. Here, let me draw you a plan.