Having spent half my working life in the architectural profession, it should come to no surprise to anyone that I’ve designed my fair share of personal “dream houses.” Dozens. What might be surprising to learn is that I’ve never actually been a home owner.
I guess it stems from the very real refusal to settle down when I was younger. I loved the ability to pack up and move every six months if the desire struck me, and as much as I would’ve loved to have actually designed and built a home of my own, it was just never in the cards.
I was living in San Francisco when I finally started to get that urge to settle, and while I wasn’t making bad money, there was still no way I was ever going to be able to get a down payment together in the amount needed to buy a place. Moving out of The City wasn’t an option; as my friend Kent was fond of saying, “Why would anyone want to live just outside the pearly gates?” I’d rather continue to rent in San Francisco itself than own in Pittsburg.
And that financial situation hasn’t changed simply because we’re now back in Arizona. But that doesn’t mean a boy can’t dream.
Some of my dreams rarely progressed beyond basic sketches:
This particular one was inspired by an advert for the American Plywood Council (or something similar) in one of my dad’s architectural magazines when I was a wee young thing. The magazine is long gone but the image was forever imprinted into my memory.
This one—a small beach house—grew out of a triplex apartment development I had the pleasure of working on shortly after I moved to Tucson in 1980.
I can’t tell you how many house plans I’ve actually designed for myself since the architectural bug first bit in middle school. As my skill level increased, if my ideas got beyond the basic sketch stage, they burned with such intensity that I had to at least start a set of construction documents—if only a handful of those projects actually ever came to fruition with a complete, ready-for-a-bidding set of drawings.
Some of my first truly personal (i.e. not copied from another designer, a local builder or a magazine) designs were a series of desert houses originally inspired by Obi Wan Kenobi’s bungalow in Star Wars and the lower floor of the tri-level house my family lived in during my high school and college years.
Buried four feet into the ground with massive concrete walls to keep out the heat, this design motif resonated with me for years, eventually coming up with several variations…
At one point I even went so far with this theme as to design an entire apartment complex (small scale floor plans and exteriors only, I’m not that driven) on the then-vacant land on the southeast corner of Grant Road and Wilmot Avenue in Tucson—but I never really developed a good way of integrating multiple bedrooms into this particular ouvre—which obviously limited its appeal.
My move to San Francisco in 1986 inspired a new design aesthetic. I loved the Victorian row houses with their multicolored gingerbread trim, but I was equally impressed by the modern, contemporary variations on the theme that many local architects were utilizing.
This 3-story house was the vehicle by which I actually taught myself AutoCAD. I became so engrossed that I was literally moving objects in my dreams by calling out their cartesian coordinates!
In the mid 90s, I returned to my desert house design, armed with a new aesthetic gleaned from living in a 1920s-era Victorian for several years. The massively thick concrete walls remained, but the barrel vault roofs were gone and much more wood was incorporated along with an almost steampunk feel for the interior details.
I don’t remember what prompted me to do it, but a couple years after I tired of that exercise and had started contemplating leaving San Francisco and returning to Tucson, I pulled out a plan for a small house I once dreamt of building in in the northeast part of the city, at some undetermined point along the Catalina Highway before it actually started up into the mountains. I’d completed a lot of work on this plan already before moving to San Francisco—back when I was still doing overlay drafting with ink on mylar, but since I was now comfortable working in the virtual realm of AutoCAD, I decided it was time to transpose it into bits and bytes.
As you can tell, I tend toward smaller houses. Even this multi-structure design isn’t really that big. And this one’s builder-ready. Not only did I do the usual floor plan and exterior elevations that I do with all my projects, this was one of those instances when I did it all: foundation, roof framing, electrical, mechanical, and interior elevations. It was designed for a lot that gently sloped away from the street with an unobstructed view of the Catalina and Rincon Mountains. Sadly, while the land in that area was mostly untouched when I first envisioned this house in 1985, it isn’t any longer. My last visit to Tucson confirmed my fear that the area is now completely built-up and there are no more unobstructed views of anything except your next door neighbor.
And that brings us to my latest bit of mental masturbation:
This is the house we’re currently renting—with several changes. It’s the first time I’ve created a dream house based on a remodel, and I’m liking how it’s progressing. It started out as an innocent “what if” between Ben and I, but now it’s developed a life of its own and has morphed into a full-scale architectural exercise. As I’ve written before, it’s been an interesting excursion into the deep recesses of memory, pulling obscure AutoCAD commands from the dusty crevices of my head and continually surprising myself that I still know how to do this stuff. It’s also become my go-to “happy place” when I’m laying in bed awake and trying to fall back asleep at 4 in the morning…