Wednesday, December 26, 2012

thanks, Uncle Sam!

The week between Christmas and New Years is traditionally reserved for countdowns and best-of lists, so we’ve decided to compile our own. We’ll mark the 26 days until President Obama’s second inauguration with our highly subjective list of the 26 best federal government policies, laws and initiatives, at least since 1787.

This project is inspired by the frequently espoused Right-wing and/or libertarian position – as wrong as it is loud – that nothing good ever comes out of the federal government. Of course the irony of expressing that retrograde view over the (federally financed) Internet is lost on the government’s critics, but, whatever. For the next four weeks we’re going to celebrate that most beautiful gift of the Enlightenment, democracy.

Drum roll, please...!

Monday, December 24, 2012


One of the real pleasures of designing tin box was imagining it as a house filled with works of art, many of which have been made by close friends. We're slowly surrounding ourselves with works that inspire us and remind us of our incredible - if far-flung - community of artists and designers. The most prominent work of art in the house is an untitled piece by Barrie Cline, a friend of Holly's since grade school. Barrie designed the ceramic, wood and gesso work as a site-specific project for our dining area.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

infrastructure and inspiration

I passed through Madrid to change planes on the way to Milan, and found it striking that a number of passengers stopped to take photographs of the airport. I don’t blame them – it’s a beautiful airport, after all – but it occurred to me that I had never seen travelers take photos of any of my “home” airports in Miami, Philadelphia, Boston, or Newark. Why not?

Saturday, December 8, 2012

day job, back to Milan edition

On Tuesday, I will be back in Milan to give a presentation on my book, The Battle for Modernism. The symposium is organized by Silvia Bignami and Paolo Rusconi, who just worked with Antonello Negri and other collaborators on an enormous - and important - exhibition of Italian paintings from the 1930s at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. It is always real honor to be invited to speak about my work, but all the more so in this case, both because Milan was the center of architectural activity discussed in my book, and because I will share the dais with Paolo Nicoloso, a scholar whose work was hugely important for my dissertation research.

Monday, December 3, 2012

planning FIU

The Perkins + Will master plan for FIU’s Maidique Campus is good. There are some particularly good places in the plan where the architects have laid out new courtyard spaces that echo the scale of the campus’s more successful outdoor spaces. The new courtyards promise to help foster and sustain discourse by creating gathering places for the academic community. There are, however, some limitations to the plan:  

Sunday, December 2, 2012


Last week's harvest brought us a nice range of salad fixings. We had our first cucumber, a bunch of tomatoes, some baby lettuces (including romaine and red leaf), sorrel, and cranberry hibiscus. The last one is new for us - it's a tangy, citrusy leaf that brought a lot of flavor to the salad (and we're not the only ones who like it). The sorrel, too, made for a great contrast with the sweet tomatoes and the crunchy, though largely flavorless, cuke.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


The courtyard (left) and the front of the house (below) at night. The transparency of the windows and doors (created by the lighting in the courtyard - including the hanging Foscarini Uto lamps - and in the interior) emphasizes the continuity of the roof structure between the inside and outside. Our next step is to furnish the courtyard, so we can take better advantage of the low humidity and moderate evening temperature of the dry season.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

shop local

Yes, Small Business Saturday is a made-up holiday invented by a credit card company and promoted by a social media behemoth, but it's a good opportunity for us to praise the local businesses that helped us build tin box. Quality construction services are not a given in Miami - these businesses deserve credit for providing exceptional service. We recommend:

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

our first harvest

With the turkey brined, and slowly air drying under a coat of spices in our refrigerator, it's an opportune time to reflect on the slow progress of our garden. We harvested our first tomato last week, and have been using some of the herbs we've been growing, including basil, garlic, sage, rosemary, savory and dill. We have some cucumbers ripening on the vine, which might find their way into a salad tomorrow night, and we have a bumper crop of sweet potato vine that might end up as a Thanksgiving side dish.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

view from the home office

Working at home, with breaks to plant more leafy greens and herbs in the garden, reveling in the beautiful "winter" weather.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

the difference between community and adjacency

We celebrated our first Halloween at tin box last week. The house’s construction makes it easy to decorate: the ferromagnetic shell allowed us to hang spiders using magnets, the thin edges of the steel purlins were the perfect place to clip the blinking jack-o-lantern lights, and the steel exterior panels let us hang spooky plastic stuff with simple masking tape. The electrical outlet on the porch is perfectly placed to power the blinking lights, whose orange glow harmonizes well with the silver skin of the house. There was just one problem. Nobody showed up.

Saturday, September 29, 2012


On Thursday, we received our Florida Water Star and Florida Friendly Landscape certifications from our rater, Lorna Bravo. We earned Florida Water Star's highest certification, Gold, for our water conservation measures, and the Florida Friendly Landscaping certification recognizes our sustainable landscape practices. Lorna, a brilliant sustainable construction consultant and master gardener, guided us through the certification processes, and James Jiler, the landscape designer about whom we've written before, is responsible for creating a native wildlife-sustaining habitat and food forest that does not require irrigation.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Our prefabricated steel construction system supplier, Ecosteel, has commissioned publicity photographs of tin box from Barry Grossman of Grossman Photography. Barry took some preliminary photos last week, and will return in the fall - once the landscape has started to fill out and we finish unpacking our boxes. Here are some images from last week.

Monday, August 27, 2012

staying dry

peafowl seem to like hiding from the rain on the porch
With classes cancelled at FIU and throughout South Florida today, it's a good time to talk about the house's performance during cyclones. Like every building in the region, tin box is designed to withstand very high winds and intense amounts of rain without sustaining any damage. The trailing side of Tropical Storm Isaac is passing through Miami now with an almost regular pattern of calm-storm-calm-storm, and it is giving us a chance to look at how the house fares. The results so far are good.

Friday, August 24, 2012

awaiting Isaac, remembering Andrew

Ron Magill, flamingoes at the Miami Metro Zoo.
The practice of naming cyclones is unsettling. Anthropomorphizing storms gives them agency and makes them seem malevolent; a tornado or earthquake is a random act of nature, "Katrina" was a malicious killer.

All over South Florida today people are marking the twentieth anniversary of the day Hurricane Andrew hit, and the consensus is that the destruction caused by the storm - and the region's lack of preparedness - "changed everything." The approach of Tropical Storm Isaac, which may make landfall as a hurricane in three days, makes the anniversary more urgent than nostalgic.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

kitchen counter

Our cabinet maker just finished the surface of the kitchen countertops, which means this may be the cleanest you'll ever see the kitchen. The countertop is made from slabs of black Richlite, a composite material made from layers of paper bonded with epoxy. In it's fresh-from-the-factory state, the material has a papery texture on the surface, though it has a density and hardness more like stone. But after sanding it repeatedly with increasingly fine sanding pads, the surface feels more like soapstone or an epoxy laboratory countertop. The surface is then protected with a coat of natural wood finish that includes linseed oil, tung oil and lemon. The finish is rubbed in with a rag, and needs to be reapplied annually.

Now we just need to let it sit for twelve hours. Then we can start cooking.

Below, another gratuitous image of the gorgeous Plyboo pantries, and the ultra-functional LED task lighting...

coming home

I came home from Ethiopia late Tuesday night, and woke up at tin box yesterday morning. It was pretty special. Holly spent the summer completing the house, and all that's left is the punch list (the final items that need to be addressed by the contractor to complete the house) and unpacking boxes that have been in storage since before we moved to Miami. At left is a photograph of the kitchen at sunrise. Among the highlights of my first morning at home: making coffee on the electric induction cooktop (water boils unbelievably fast), drinking it in the courtyard, taking a long shower (of filtered rainwater heated by our solar hot water panel), and watching the new families of peafowl wandering through the garden.

I've lived in spaces designed by or with Holly on and off for the last 22 years, and this one is really, really special.

Monday, August 6, 2012


We'll get back to posting on the progress of the house and reporting on how well the various systems are working next week. For now, a few tasty morsels of photos Holly took last week...

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

trees, streets and empires

Sudan Street, Addis Ababa
The history of Addis Ababa is intricately linked to its trees. The city was given its name, which means “New Flower,” by the Empress Taitu in what may have been a reference to the area’s plentiful mimosa trees. Yet within a few years of Emperor Menelik II making the city his permanent capital around 1887, the sovereign considered relocating because of the deforestation caused by felling trees for construction materials and firewood. The introduction of Australian eucalyptus trees in 1905, probably by two French diplomats, saved the city. Eucalyptus grows quickly in the Ethiopian highlands, and will grow a new trunk from the stump of a cut tree. It made an ideal resource for construction and firewood – a role it still serves – and has naturalized throughout much of the country. When the Italians made Addis Ababa the capital of their African empire in 1936, they brought a new set of trees with them.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

day job, indoor edition

Archival materials can be incredibly helpful for the kind of research I’m doing on architecture and urbanism in East Africa. These resources can be correspondence and other written documents (logs, contracts, diaries, receipts, reports), photographs, drawings, maps, catalogs, brochures, and objects of all sorts. Often these materials are conserved in archives and libraries, but not always; on Thursday I am going to visit the offices of a construction company that has been based in Eritrea and Ethiopia since the 1930s, and which has a large collection of photographs documenting their work over the years. The material I’ve looked at so far in the Ethiopian National Archives and the Institute for Ethiopian Studies has been very revealing for two main reasons: it documents the processes of construction in great detail and it helps establish a clear chronology of the layers of development in East African metropolises. In both cases the archival evidence often contradicts later written accounts or fills in the vast gaps in our knowledge.

Friday, July 27, 2012

day job, outdoor edition

We haven't posted on tin box for a while now, but things are progressing at the house. We'll have updates on construction later in August.

One reason for the lack of updates is that I've been in Ethiopia since June, conducting research for two book projects about modern architecture and urbanism here. The first book will deal with the period of Italian colonization in East Africa (1935-41) and the second will look at the whole arc of modernization in Ethiopia since the reign of Menelik II. This research has been exciting, in part because I came here with far fewer expectations and assumptions than I had when I started the dissertation studies that led to my first book. The paucity of historical scholarship on modern architecture and urbanism in Africa means that I had to approach Ethiopia prepared to improvise. And Ethiopia rewards improvisation.

Monday, June 18, 2012


Our paving crew spent much of Saturday installing the concrete pavers for our porches, courtyard, front walk and driveway. The pavers sit on a bed of compacted sand, which establishes the slope for the paving and provides a dense supporting medium to distribute the weight of whatever the pavers are carrying (people, cars, elephants)...

Friday, June 15, 2012


With the construction fence removed today, the transparency of the living/dining room and its relationships to the park and courtyard have become more visible. Here's the covered patio facing the park, seen from the park with the sun setting behind. The rest of the landscape is coming into shape vey quickly.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


The rainwater cistern arrived today. We're using a 3,000-gallon polyethylene tank made by Norwesco, which was sourced by the company that designed and provided our rainwater filtration system, Rainwater Management Systems. The indoor components - a pump and three filters - have already been installed, and the next step is to connect the cistern to our gutters and to the filters.

The tank weighs 404 pounds empty (12 tons when full of water), so wrangling it around the side of the house took the efforts of three steel workers, two truck drivers and one surprisingly limber professor...


Yesterday, our paving company sent a Bobcat operator to grade and prepare the areas that will be paved today and tomorrow. We're using 12"x12" concrete pavers, which will sit on a compacted bed of sand. The Bobcat operator scraped away soil, sloped the front walkway and driveway down to the street, leveled the porch and patio, and then laid a bed of sand in each area.

Monday, June 11, 2012


After a long, sweaty day of moving rock and soil, giving away spare wall panels (thanks, Bill!), working out details for connecting the gutters to the rainwater cistern, filling out LEED paperwork and revising the drawings in anticipation of applying for the certificate of occupancy, I had a chance to indulge in the glorious luxury of transplanting a big basil plant from the garden of our neighbors, Leatrice and Bill. The large planting beds we're building in front of the house will eventually be filled with fruit and vegetable plants, in lieu of a front lawn. Gardening is so hard to describe - at times soothing, compulsive, satisfying and addictive - and our planting beds should provide an ever-changing foil of foliage and flora against the crisp silver finish of the house. I can't wait to start composting...

Thursday, June 7, 2012


Preparing the planting beds gives us a chance to recycle some waste material and see if we can help promote worm growth. Worms fertilize the soil, so we want to give them some habitat and nourishment. We laid a layer of paper on the bottom of the corner planting bed in order to keep the weeds down. The recently ended school year left with with an ample supply of homework and notebooks that should serve this purpose well. On top of the paper, we laid a layer of corrugated cardboard to provide the worms with some habitat...

Friday, June 1, 2012

LED lighting

One of the hardest pieces of the sustainability puzzle for us has been selecting good lighting for the house.  Compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs are so common that it's easy to compare their visual quality and energy efficiency, but light-emitting diode (LED) lighting is still so novel that it's hard to find live displays to help us evaluate the different lighting options. It's particularly difficult to find lighting strips (as opposed to individual bulbs) installed as samples. So while everyone knows what a standard 60 watt incandescent bulb looks like, it's very hard to imagine how an 11 watt LED bulb performs, let alone a 5W/ft LED strip light.

Monday, May 28, 2012

wildlife, amphibian edition

Say hello to Bufo marinus, the Cane Toad. This is the big South American native (usually 6 inches from nose to butt) whose appetite for cane beetles led to its introduction in sugar producing regions around the world. Yes, it's the amphibian that's devastating Queensland (the Simpsons even made reference to it in their Australian episode), and yes, the cane toad is poisonous to potential predators, except for possum, possibly. But they seem to really like eating the palmetto bugs (the enormous Florida woods cockroach, Eurycotis floridana), so they're cool with us. And they make a great sound in the evening...

Sunday, May 27, 2012


Sunny morning in Miami. Gotta go work on the gutters, to make them do this, but better:

completing the cabinetry

Yesterday, our cabinet maker installed the doors and drawer fronts on the kitchen cabinets. Both the pantries (left, in progress) and the base cabinets under the sliding glass doors/window are now simple volumes clad in bamboo. The low cabinets have Haefele pulls, but we haven't yet decided on what handles to install on the pantries... it seems a shame to interrupt those gorgeous expanses of bamboo.

Friday, May 25, 2012

childhood dream realized

Remember when you were a kid and fire fighters were the coolest thing in the world? Today tin box had the awesomest group of visitors from Miami-Dade Station 14. That's right, fire fighters came over to our house and asked for a tour. And they took photos. Fire fighters took photos of our house. And they kept talking about how cool it is. Fire fighters!

I'll bet that never happened to Steven Holl.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

in praise of field modifications

Our steel erectors are back for a few days to finish up some details. John (left) and Mike put up the last pieces of trim along the top ridge of the upper roof. They modified the trim to act as a raceway protecting the cables for the photovoltaic panels, eliminating the need for the clunky PVC box that normally accompanies the Uni-solar panels. This improvisation is one of the best field modifications in the project, so far.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Our cabinet maker's countertop experts installed our kitchen counter today, and it looks gorgeous. We're using Richlite, a solid-surface material made from thin layers of paper bonded with phenolic resin. The Richlite has a dense, matte finish which will become even more lustrous once we apply the finish coat after its final sanding. The black surface works really well with both the bamboo cabinetry and the painted metal finishes of the windows, walls and structural frame.

dumpster gone

We had the dumpster hauled away for the last time yesterday. In theory, our prefabricated steel frame and exterior panels reduced the amount of waste produced on site dramatically, though we honestly don't have any numbers to compare. Our disposal costs include having the refuse sorted into different recyclable materials. Besides sending the usual materials - steel, wood and cardboard - for recycling, the company also sends concrete to be crushed into gravel for road construction. We haven't yet received the final account of our waste disposal. When we do, we'll post the results.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

remembering Sant'Agostino

Early this morning, an earthquake struck the region of Emilia Romagna in northern Italy. While this temblor left much less severe damage than the 2009 quake that nearly destroyed the city of L'Aquilia, it still caused several fatalities. Among the dead are two of the three workers who provided overnight monitoring of the kilns at the Ceramica Sant'Agostino tile factory. Based in the town of the same name, Ceramica Sant'Agostino made the ceramic tile we used on our bathroom walls, and it is possible that our tile was fired in the building which collapsed this morning.

Our thoughts and condolences are with the families of Nicola Cavicchi and Leonardo Ansaloni, the two Ceramica Sant'Agostino employees who perished today, as well as with the families of the other victims of the earthquake.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

bouncing off the satellites, continued

Google's spy satellites have finally located tin box. The latest updated images show the house the way it was a few months ago, with all of the roof and some of the wall panels installed, but before windows and doors went in. More interesting, though, is the fact that the satellite images shown at different scales are from different photographs. When you zoom out, you get an image from last spring...

Monday, May 14, 2012

lust for lights

We've been doing a lot of shopping for light fixtures over the last two days, with a series of unsuccessful hunts for simple cord sets (literally a cord and socket with which to make a pendant lamp) leading to interesting discoveries of LED exterior lights and other things we'd had trouble finding. One of today's trips netted four lights for our bathroom vanities, sort of. We found a 20" long LED fixture by George Kovacs (left) that will be perfect in three of the bathrooms. However, the factory has a backlog of 6,000 orders to fill before we'll get our lights (we were promised mid-June) which we read as an exciting indication that energy-efficient lighting has come of age as a first choice for homeowners. This is a very good sign, not least because it suggests the economy is rebounding, but especially because companies are making, and customers are choosing, energy-efficient options. We found a similar dilemma with dual-flush toilets. A very promising sign indeed.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

accidental misprision

After weeks of staring at our structural steel and drywall, it occurred to me that I’ve seen this relationship between gray structure and smooth, light walls before.

Michelangelo’s magnificent vestibule at the Laurentian library – one of the most amazing rooms in the world – is one of a number of spaces in Florence where dark pietra serena stone is carved into the Classical orders, in contrast to the creamy plaster of the surrounding wall surfaces.

imagining a garden

We spent a lot of time this week thinking about the landscape/gardens/habitat around and inside tin box this week. We laid out some of our coral rock (the bounty from our septic tank installation) to give us an idea of the broad outlines of the raised planters we want to build on the south side of the house. Holly started sketching the front in perspective to help visualize the relationship between plantings, stone and ground. We visited a neighbor with a terrific vegetable and fruit garden, and started to fantasize about what we could grow with our abundant sunshine and rainfall. We thought about what kinds of plants we can grow above a septic drainage field, and which ones we can't. And then Faichild Tropical Botanic Garden hosted their annual flowering tree sale...

Saturday, May 12, 2012


Last week's septic tank and drainage field excavations also gave us a chance to bury electrical power and data lines running to the house from the nearest utility pole. These conduits need to be buried 30" below the surface to protect them from inadvertent damage, whereas (strangely) the main water supply line only needs to be 12" below grade. The water line, which was laid weeks ago, is the white PVC pipe hanging in the air in this photo. It will be packed in clean (rock-free) fill to protect it from punctures after the electrical conduits are backfilled.

Why four conduits? Two are for power lines, one is for a telephone line and the fourth is for cable/internet service. Most likely, we won't use the telephone line, but it will be good to have the conduit in place, just in case. What else is buried outside tin box?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

progress and gardening

Our septic tank and drainage field were installed last week. This required removing the construction fence in front of the house, which gives us our first broad views of, and from, it.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

no new house smell

Our painter primed the interior partitions today (the exterior walls are prefinished, and won't be painted), which leads to two thoughts: one, the house is wonderfully bright in all types of sunlight, and two, sustainable paints have no odor.

Regarding the light, the weather changed rapidly and repeatedly today, with intense showers interspersed with strong sunlight. The white primer on the interior walls reflects the light - which is mostly indirect light from the north or from our well-shaded east- and west- facing windows and doors - throughout the house. The result is a diffuse light which reflects off the galvanized surfaces of the roof decking and the light gray concrete floor. The mood of the house changes quickly with the quality of the light outside.

But it was the complete lack of odor today that really impressed us.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

on staying dry

The rain has been falling fairly steadily for a few hours in Miami, which made for a good day to check the interior of tin box for leaks. So far, it looks reassuringly dry inside. In fact, there's no sign of water inside the house, which means the roof, walls, windows, doors and vents are all working as intended. The strategies we've taken to ensure weather-tightness should help us avoid the considerable costs of repairs related to leaky roofs. These include:

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

wet construction

The tile work in the bathrooms is nearly complete. Our tiler, Sergio, has been patiently and meticulously setting the various wall and floor tiles in place. In the guest and master baths, he has had to work with a pitched floor that slopes to a drain to allow the rooms to be used as big showers. The work looks pretty excellent so far:

Monday, April 23, 2012

epiphyte club

Still recovering from our post-Earth Day hangovers, dreaming about the landscape at tin box. The house was always intended to be a pavilion at the juncture of several gardens, but our ideas regarding those gardens were always fluid, as we waited to see just what kind of spaces the house would produce. We're eager to start laying out the raised planting beds for the vegetables and fruit, position the new trees, arrange the native species that provide habitat for our local wildlife, and begin filling in the ground with interesting alternatives to the conventional lawn.

We are also just about ready to start building screens of epiphytes, or air plants, to shield the master bath from view. South Florida's bounty of air plants, like the bromeliad pictured here, force the transplanted gardner to redefine the verb to plant, with its assumption of a soil base for vegetation. We've planned to build a light armature to cover with air plants around the back corner of the house, so that we won't need curtains in the bathroom. We'll include bromeliads and orchids for their colorful flowers, and dense mats of Spanish moss for visual privacy.

Saturday, April 21, 2012


Detroit has become a metonym for “urban decay,” a pejorative term that misleadingly implies that cities are primarily responsible for their own decline. As Detroit’s manufacturing economy has relocated (first to other states, then overseas) and its population has shrunk by half, the city fabric has suffered from neglect, abandonment, arson and poor redevelopment decisions. Meadows and parking lots have replaced too many buildings, leaving the city fabric as a patchwork quilt with pockets of vitality isolated by vast swaths of open space. So why is Detroit such a wonderful city?

Friday, April 20, 2012

day job, ultra grateful edition

I just got back from the annual meeting of the Society of Architectural Historians in Detroit, where I had the extraordinarily great fortune to receive the society's Founders' Award. The award recognizes an article published in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, which, in this case, was the essay I wrote on Italian colonial urban planning in Ethiopia. It was really humbling to listen to Marta Gutman, the jury chair, read the citation and realize that so many of the people in the room had taken the time to mentor, guide or nudge me in some important way over the last fifteen years. For someone who still sees himself as an architect learning how to write, and to think like a historian, the society's recognition means a lot.

The collegiality of the community of scholars is amazing, and also bears mentioning. Discourse, collaboration, mentorship and service are all essential parts of what drives the production of knowledge. It's a privilege to be a part of this world.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

utilities and services

Earlier this week, our photovoltaic (solar-electric) installer connected the wires for the p/v panels through the holes we'd carefully drilled through the steel trim at the top of the upper roof. These wires will be concealed beneath, and protected by, the final piece of trim that gets installed as a cap over the top edges of the roof's standing seams. Once the cap trim is in place, the roof will be finished.