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Archive for the ‘Walls’ Category

In my work doing residential landscape architecture, I have encountered a number of instances where someone has bought a house on a sloping piece of land, getting what seems to be a steal. Usually, the buyer/client first tackles work on the house, revising its interior, and sometimes its exterior, to make it just as he/she wants it to be. House modifications can take years. When the house update is done, the homeowner turns his/her attention to the landscape. Most people want as much usable outdoor space as possible: a patio is a pleasant place to sit, a big, level lawn lets kids play comfortably and within sight, and walking, driving, swimming, or playing sports are all easier on flat surfaces. And it’s when the owner of a sloping site wants to enlarge their usable domain that it becomes clear why the dream house was such a bargain.

Why? Because slopes are expensive to unslope.

For people to use the land immediately around their house with any degree of comfort, it’s necessary to make level areas. A patio typically has a cross-pitch or slope of not more than 2% (just enough to drain water), and a lawn that slopes no more than 5 or 6 percent is best for active kids to organize and play games on. When a house is built on really noticeably sloping ground, the grade can measure anywhere from 8 to 15 percent, or more.

Sometimes earthen banks can hold up a level area; sometimes strategically placed boulders can do the job; often large retaining walls are necessary. Where surface area is scant, retaining walls may be the most efficient way to hold land level. Walls tend to be costly.

To start from a different point: A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to visit a friend in Konstanz, Germany. While there, we took a number of side trips into Switzerland. We punctuated our train trip to Appenzell, Switzerland (home of many cows and of Appenzeller cheese, a famously stinky but delicious local specialty) with a visit to St. Gallen, home of a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Library of the Abbey of St. Gall.

St. Gallen, Switzerland, from the air. The medieval walled city core is clearly visible among the more regular fabric of later-built streets and buildings. The Abbey and its World Heritage Site Bibliothek can be seen at about four o'clock in the walled part of the city.

The Bibliotek (Library) was closed when we arrived. We were ready to take a rest anyway, so found a spot on the spacious and sunny courtyard lawn and got out a picnic lunch. The day was bright and only slightly cool; though cars puttered by outside the court and a bell nearby clanged the hour and several other people sat on the grass and on nearby benches, the courtyard felt extraordinarily tranquil and pleasant. We munched and chatted, and I tried to put my finger on what made the courtyard feel so different from the surrounding area.

Look closer at the Abbey and its grounds. It takes up a large area within the walled city, and though the surrounding land slopes to the northwest, (that is, toward the photo's top left corner), the huge Abbey courtyard is almost perfectly level.

I had been thinking about the slope/cost issue for a quite some time, and it sprang to mind again in that peaceful abbey close. From the railroad station in the valley bottom, we had climbed winding medieval city streets to get to the Abbey; the walled city around the Abbey sat considerably higher than the station itself. Outside the three-sided Abbey complex, streets bent and sloped against the thick walls of the Roman Catholic enclave. Inside, green grass carpeted an utterly level quadrangle, muffling sound and lying like a tablecloth on a tabletop

Outside the Abbey walls is an orderly but dense fabric of masonry buildings and narrow streets that wind up and down the hilly terrain. Inside the Abbey walls, the utterly level and open ground of this tranquil courtyard puts on display the power and wealth of the Church that built it. Photo by kind courtesy of Galen Frysinger, at http://www.galenfrysinger.com/

In this Swiss city, slope is a fact of life. Buildings themselves do double duty as retaining walls; the back door of a house here can easily be situated a full floor above the front door. The city fabric is tightly woven, to conserve energy and again, because amending long sloping frontages can be expensive. Most homes are built cheek by jowl, with little or no space between houses.

The Church was and is a wealthy and powerful homeowner/landowner, as evidenced by its leveling of a sizable piece of the town’s steep foothill to make a vast piece usable ground. The fact that the courtyard lies in the middle of this densely woven city, and that it is given over to luxurious lawn sends a quiet but clear message of power and wealth. While the elegant and extremely solid buildings convey that message, the carving out of level outdoor space speaks just as definitively about the ability of this particular institution to make unlevelled places plain.

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Brian Rose’s website, the subject of yesterday’s post, also features his photos of the Berlin Wall and its environs before, during, and after its fall. He writes about the experience of place in Berlin, and for anyone whose knowledge of the Wall is limited (mine was derived mainly from watching Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire and Faraway So Close — wonderful movies, in which the Wall is a character, but not the main character in them), Mr. Rose’s chronicle, called The Lost Border; Photographs of The Iron Curtain is well worth exploring. Don’t miss it, in fact — it’s an affecting series that depicts and describes how the Wall and the zone around it informed, and in ways continues to inform — the national consciousness of the once-divided and now unified Germany.

Photo by Svenwerk on Flickr

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Saul Steinberg was a genius for showing us how versatile a line can be.

Saul Steinberg was a genius for showing us how versatile a line can be.

Like that Steinberg drawing, the Parisian building facade pushes in and pushes out, has ceilings and floors, and carves places — albeit the tiny ones of deep sills and shallow entryways — out of mass. Items get applied, chunks get taken out.

It’s easier to see those thicker building walls in older American cities — Boston, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia — on buildings put up before curtain wall construction took over. Curtain wall construction, regardless of where it takes place, thins out walls and so abstracts function down to the single use of dividing inside and out.

Building owners looking to limit their liability sometimes impoverish the richness that a more complex wall offers. This article in the Canadian Center for Architecture website discusses the use of ‘pigeon strips’ to deter people from sitting in the deep sills of older buildings. I’m betting that liability is another reason that it’s rare to see streetlights on buildings in this country.

(Yes, pigeon strips to deter people, not pigeons, from sitting on the sills. They’re really heavy spikes, and perhaps they aren’t really meant for pigeon deterrence (that’s done more often with much thinner spikes in a fanned arrangement), but the CCA called them ‘pigeon strips’, so I’m continuing the practice.)

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The Boston Globe just published this piece about stone wall theft throughout New England. It describes the just-passed New Hampshire law that will assess triple damages for the restoration of a stolen wall — plus attorneys’ fees — against those who steal that stone wall. That’s a lot of spondulix. The article is worth a read.
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In that last post, I don’t mean to imply that all veneer stone walls come from shady dealings, by any means, or that they are bad in and of themselves. I use veneer stone walls in plenty of my projects, and veneer is a valuable construction method in any number of applications. Often they are the best solution for a given site. And certainly there’s plenty of stone to go around in New England.

The cutting of larger, weathered wall stone into much smaller, weathered-face pieces is what I’m wondering about, and have no solid answers. Those smaller cut pieces can make a stunning chimney face, or interior stone wall, or, as in the case featured recently on a popular TV program, a knockout modern retaining wall backing a narrow reflecting pool. But each weathered stone taken from an old wall and cut up for one of those elements provides incentive for the removal and cutting up of the stones from other old (and still viable) walls.

On the other hand, not everyone wants the weathered look. A contractor once told me about a client for whom he had built a handsome fieldstone wall, one that he had been at great pains to use stone with nicely lichened faces. There was even a little moss on some of the stones, and because of that and its careful design, the wall looked comfortably situated in the landscape from the start. The client, who had been out of town and away from the project since approving the design, came home, saw the wall, and called his contractor. “What is this?!” he asked — “I don’t want old, used stone in my wall! I thought I was getting new stone!” The contractor shook his head as he told me the story, laughing at the idea of having to source stone that hadn’t been around for millennia….

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Quite frequently I design a project that calls for one or more stone walls, and almost as frequently the stone I specify is New England fieldstone. Fieldstone walls are ubiquitous in this part of the world, and a good wall, even if it’s newly constructed, can help give structure and readability to a landscape.

Because I specify stone walls so often, I see quite a few stone supplier ads. A newish product, fieldstone veneer, has been advertised in the last few years. Fieldstone veneer is made by cutting chunks of fieldstone into small rectangular pieces; the face of the veneer is left rough and weathered, or with a split, not sawn surface. The rectangular form makes installing the veneer a relatively quick process, and gives an architectural, or at least strictly ordered, look to a wall face. The contrast between that ordering and the naturally textured surface presents quite an appealing finish.

When I see videos of the fieldstone veneer cutting process, though, my mind drifts to the disappearance of historic stone walls throughout New England, and I wonder if any of the projects I’ve worked on contain some of that stone, hauled from its centuries-old home and sliced into construction-ready pieces. This article from the National Trust for Historic Preservation outlines the problem: stone walls are being taken without permission or compensation from private properties and reused elsewhere. As far as I can tell, there’s no way of determining the provenance of stone — and cutting it up only makes identification even more impossible. We can only see the ancient walls disappearing from roadsides, yard perimeters, and woodlots, and hope that what we’re using has come only from legitimate sources.

Here is a photo of intact stone walls in winter. p1000614These are freestanding drylaid walls, and one of their structural merits is that they move with frost. Their jointing methods – no mortar used – and wall composition insure that the walls move with the land as it undergoes the freeze/thaw cycle, and the relatively large stone size keeps the walls from falling apart even as they move.

With the ‘recycling’ of New England fieldstone for mortared walls, as in this wall,
Picture 5for instance, the cutting up of stones limits their future use, and the ability of future generations to recycle the stones once more. The argument could be made that veneer makes fieldstone a material accessible to more people because a veneer wall is less expensive to build than a full-depth stone wall — and it’s a valid argument. But the lifespan of mortared veneer walls has to be far shorter than that of traditional drylaid walls, given the nature of the freeze/thaw cycle, the shallowness of small veneers, and the prevalence of moisture in the New England winter — and that means that these walls will need maintenance and/or rebuilding sooner than the more traditionally built walls. Not to mention that if the natural stones themselves disappear, so too do the building techniques that produce the most stable and flexible kinds of walls for landscape use, and the possibility of being able to build them as readily as has been done in the past.

Is this a solvable problem? Is this a problem? I think that stone wall theft is definitely a problem, and I don’t know if it’s a solvable one. I’m pretty sure I haven’t explored the topic of New England stone walls, their disappearance, the metamorphosis of fieldstone into veneer, the use of veneer in landscape applications, or the costs (short-term and life-cycle) of veneer versus fieldstone with anything approaching thoroughness — but it seemed that recording initial thoughts on the topic would be a good place to start this particular conversation. Your thoughts?

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Stone walls 1

p1000618p1000624p1000655Same March day, Rhode Island rural landscape.  Stone edges.

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