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May 18, 2015

New Stuff:

In Random Stuff: “May We All Get……what we Deserve.”

In Not (As) Fat: Fat & Drunk

In Finding Home:  Fixing More Than Forming: Reality

In The Rules:  How Tall is Tall? Getting the Low Down on Height Regulations 


The Road (Mostly) Not Taken

May 17, 2015


“A Road diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Safety and Innovation: the dance between comfort and expression, the pull between tradition and what’s happening now is within each of us, so its natural its found in what we create.

Pop Music panders to 8th grade emotions with 6th grade linguistics and ad jingle musicality, New Music excuses atonality and screeching dissonance with academic jargon and high intent.

Cat videos on the Internet make us laugh, and distract from a huge stream of distraction. Full-on Trolling for a cause – Left Wing or Right Wing uses distraction to foment outrage.

Ranchburgers and McMansions are the stylistic lap dogs to preconceived images of what is both appropriate and resellable in houses. Sculpted or Rube Goldberg Bot Houses allow architects to muse with clients’ money.

A nice rental or a condo allows occupancy in a home with zero commitment, building something or taking on a wreck to reno makes your home a second job.

Humans excel at extremes: we are not-so-good at both-and.

We leap to a defendable posture in art, politics and lifestyle because most of us are not very clear on our ultimate values, and its easier to pick a flow and go with it. I have completely opted out of any fashion expression: I wear 2 or 3 “outfits”: mostly black, mostly machine washable: my hair gets one style when cut: shorter.

Its easier, and if you choose not to compete (in my case in the world of fashion) you cannot lose.

Where we live is, whether we like it or not, a mirror of what we value. Embracing a non-compete clause in the choices you make in your home can deny what you value, cost you money short and long term, and simply fly in the face of what your land offers or imposes on your home.

– Does you house HAVE to have a front door facing the street? Does Katy Perry need tub thumping bass?

The point is Katy’s bass and the Center Hall’s face facade are just as simplistic as the meme’s of Fine Arts Correctness:

– If you are a Serious Architect is it really impossible to have a roof that expresses a purpose of protection (versus abstracted artfulness)? If you are a serious musician is harmony a cop-out?

– If you want to be Green is it required that your home use soybean or reclaimed blue jean insulation, even if its cost will never be recovered in a lifetime of reduced heating bills?

Just like I opted out of couture, you can opt out of cop-outs: even the defendable ones: being a contrarian reactionary is not what this is about: its about pausing in the cacophony of the day-to-day and pulling back to seeing where you are.

And acting on what you believe in.

That may just mean a Center Hall home for you: it may be a blackened out shipping container with sliding glass door facade: the answers, in the end, are not the issue.

Style is not the issue: its expressing who you are, when no one is looking: when you are in the dark, in the woods, and the choice, finally, becomes clear: for Robert Frost the less travelled path made sense, for others well worn wheel ruts are the answer.

For me, in designing homes, there is the third choice: the one for you or anyone who has thought enough to know that values start from the evaluator, not with Correctness.

Most will go with the flow because any flow requires majority participation to become a flow. Those who find an edge in denying the flow are just as safe in their world of their fellow deniers as those mindless flowing.

The hardest road is the one that is the one least likely to be nameable by others: because it has your name, not a style’s, a movement’s or a website’s.


May 16, 2015



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As Seen in the New York Times, 12/2/2014



Under Construction

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Recently Completed!

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The outdoor chapel at Incarnation Camp in Ivoryton, CT

Click here to read about the project.

CEPHAS Housing 25 Years Ago in Yonkers NY

Click here to read about the project.

CEPHAS-Existing-001-copyCephas Ext4aCephas Ext2Cephas PR Dwg4ps


In New Haven Register: New Haven’s Court Street is ‘like its own little town’

In Hartford Courant (login required): Smart Home Design In A City That’s Neighborly

In New Haven Register: Villas on a ridge, New Haven’s Hillhouse Avenue

In Townvibe: Simple Pleasures, an Artful Blend of Modern and Traditional

In Hartford Courant (login required): A Classic Street Ages, But Retains its Beautiful Bones

In New Haven Register: Forum: Yale, Pearl Harbor bridge projects show branding matters, money follows

In New York Times: Everything and the Kitchen Sink

In New Haven Register: Millennial Meme Housing Sprouts in New Haven

In Hartford Courant (login required): “Christmas in Connecticut” was Perfect for War-Weary 1945 American Moviegoers

In Room One Thousand: Sixty Panes of Faith

In Behind the Walls: The Not So Tiny House Movement (Part 1)

In AIA: It’s not the Media: It’s the Work

In New Haven Register: Quarantining Architecture

In New Haven Register: Weeds on New Haven’s Oak Street Lawn

In New Haven Magazine: Back Yard Forward

In New Haven Register: Ultimate Gesture of Architectural Modesty is a Buried Building

In New Haven Register: Tulips, Architecture Students & Bubbles that Burst

In New Haven Register: Flood tide of rental housing could change New Haven’s landscape

In New Haven Magazine: Still by the Sea

In New Haven Magazine: Preserving the Past for the Future

In River & Shore’s Coastal Homes: Boy Was It Worth It

In New Haven Magazine: From Family to Farm

In The New Haven Register: Ultimate Gesture of Architectural Modesty Is Buried Building

In The New Haven Register: Yale’s Evans Hall: Overdressed for Success

In New Haven Magazine: Cubed

In New Haven Magazine: Finding Design

In The New Haven Register:  Pearl Harbor Bridge in New Haven Extension of Greatest Generation’s Legacy

In Hartford Faith & Values:  An Elevator on Orchard Street

In The New Haven Register:  Are Neighbors More Neighborly when there is Greater Density?

In New Haven Magazine: Lawyers In Love

In Ink Magazine:  Architect Duo Dickinson: Celebrating 35 Years of Good Design for Everyone

In New Haven Magazine: A House of Homes

In The Source:  Duo Dickinson, Architect at Large

In River & Shore’s Coastal Homes:  On the Indian River

In The New Haven Register:  Aesthetically inconvenient Mudd Library faces death sentence

In Connecticut Magazine: Elements of Surprise

In The New Haven Register: Real Icons Aplenty in New Haven

In The Mercurial: Erosion Revelation

In Architecture Boston: Post-Modernism and Intelligent Design

In Design Bureau: Steve & Frank

Archive: Real Life Survival Guide



On Common Ground with Annette Ross:  She asked “Where is Architecture?”, I answered

On HGTV:  Mercedes Home Diaries       Password: mercedes



On Home Page, Binnie Klein & I debut our new radio show. Listen here!

On A Miniature World, Binnie Klein & I discuss springtime striving, mislaid spirituality & the folly of architectural terms. Listen here!

Mother Confusion

May 10, 2015


(Anna Jarvis – not my Mom)

On this day, 107 years ago, Anna Jarvis created the first Mother’s Day in Grafton, West Virginia. She never had children, but like all of us she had a beloved mother and wanted her recent death to have a wider meaning.

Anna died penniless in an insane asylum about 40 years later. She had a tragic end because her baby, Mother’s Day, had spiraled away from a spiritual intimate day of personal rebonding, (note the “‘” location makes each Mom the focus, not all Mom’s) into the crass profit-generating commercialized make-up call opportunity that today guilts $170 out each and every American household that has Moms.

She had created a focus for a world where child mortality was beginning to become less overwhelmingly common and the Industrial Revolution was in the middle of birthing “the work week” – which came to mean that 40 hours of toil left about 100 hours of waking time for things like Mother’s Day.

The changed reality of from a world where children were expected to leave the home, versus grow old in it in a multigenerational entity where commerce, food, education and child rearing (and burying) to a launching pad is still evolving, but its made a distant Mom the norm. Just as familiarity creates contempt, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and, Voila! Mother’s Day.

My mother was born in the first year Mother’s Day was nationally celebrated, 1914. Her parents were teachers, college educated and pretty “modern”. There is a rumor that my mother’s mother may have been “involved” with the leader of the cultish Roycrofters arts enclave (Elbert Hubbard) in upstate New York, were my mom grew up.

Having been undecided what to do after high school, my mother opted for art school at Cornell (a fairly radical place of relative equality for women in the 1930’s) got in at the last minute, joined a sorority and, then, well, quit after a year and essentially told her parents she was going to New York in 1932 “to be an artist”.

She was the apple of her Dad’s eye, and her Mom, also a libertine thought there was no way to force her to go to school, so she went.

In her first year there, she met a dashing lawyer and completely fell in love with him. Fulfilling her predilection for doing as she pleased, she moved in with my father at 19, without “benefit of marriage”. (The fact that she told her children this when we were teenagers rounds out the story pretty well for me.)

The decade before World War 2 had seen my father live the American Dream: first person in his immigrant family to graduate high school (Boys High, Brooklyn), then college, then law school (both Cornell) onto a partner-track law position at one of the firms with offices at 1 Wall Street where virtually all “the best firms” were – according to my father, anyway.

Finding this hot, artistic, go-for-it girl meant the endless nights going uptown to the Onyx Club, the Kit Kat Club and thence to 21 was a play-hard/work-hard Nirvana. No thought of children or leaving their incredibly cool East 10th St. apartment with the huge terrace, just law 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, August off, and coming home to a saucy artist.

Then the world blew up.

My 32 year old dad had, naturally, been honorably relieved of his ROTC commission after the standard 8 year commitment to the Field Artillery. In 1942 he was subject to the draft and to being a grunt in the trenches. 50 years later, my mother described a near mental breakdown, where my dad scrambled to get his commission back, and finally found a home in Naval Intelligence for the 4 year Hell that was WWII.

The shock and awe of having a world of hip privilege in the Depression blow up doubled down on the impact war had on my parents. Partying and golfing and socializing was replaced by steaming thru the Pacific on the Yorktown or the the Lexington (often just avoiding serious action by simple chance). Dozens of friends and acquaintances were killed. Everyone was hurt, one way or another.

Upon return everything was gone: no partnership track (the 4F Associate saw to that). No more unbridled joy with jazz and party – it was time to try to recover from a 4 year near-death experience.

Part of dealing with what we now call PTSD then was having children: death flipped to life. Battlefields became suburbia. Things were done to heal without knowing they were being done to heal: they were just the “right thing to do”.

That meant kids: first a stillborn boy (the doctor was golfing) then 3 decade-spaced apart, delivered-while-unconscious, bottle-fed kinder, all conceived in my Mom’s ’30’s. My favorite snapshot of that decade was her unabashed statement I often repeat (as it may explain much about me) “I loved being pregnant! I LOVED being pregnant! I could drink and drink and drink and never get drunk!”

Knowing all this, because they told us (and because we witnessed it) the unending flow of alcohol, cigarettes and bigotry that were applied to wounds so deep they were invisible, it was not surprising that motherhood was not the central value in my Mom’s life.

Birthdays after 6 years old were visits to my favorite hobby store, Christmas was an insane over indulgence to make up for the screaming. I was sent to Buffalo at 13 to stake out a place for my mother to retreat to , and, at the end, her life as a part time interior designer was what she was proudest of.

At a wine-infused 1989 baby shower with my wife’s female friends who were doctors, lawyers, MBA’s, PHD’s (all wearing shoulder pads and perms BTW) my widowed mother robustly blurted, with me at her side:

“You know, girls, I was just born too early, if I had been your age, I never would have had children!”

True that. But what do I do with Mother’s Day? My wife and I have tried to be good parents: but it was often a guess, a simulation as we could not pick our parents, and somehow they never quite knew what to do with us.

Creating a national holiday for an intimate human condition is absurd. Like each bit of DNA in our cells, each one of us has an exquisitely unique back story: We may all have parents, but our families are not all Hallmark worthy.

Anna Jarvis knew that.

House Doctoring: Bottom Up Relevance

May 3, 2015


The profession of architecture is in a PR free fall:

Decrying architects as elitist is about as challenging as clubbing a baby seal. But architecture’s slide into fashionista fine arts irrelevance seems to get worse with every affected Starchitect rationalization for buildings morphing into sculpture. It’s an easy target to bash the elite’s pricey buildings in the 7th year of a recession. But the bashing is not about the clients, or purposes put to “signature buildings” – that’s happened since Hadrian’s Villa.

Architecture’s slide, despite this article’s Modernist Mockery, has zero to do with any style. All the recent articles are a screaming snark on the profession of architecture embodying the tone-deaf Twit Olympics of dilittantery – architecture is becoming a poster child of the 1% and all that goes with it.

Frank Lloyd Wright wanted relevance via cheap houses for the masses: his unmaintainable Usonian Homes. Le Corbusier created a “City for 3 Million” where all classes were equally warehoused in sterile towers. Architecture’s latest attempt to gain traction for the 99%, a well intentioned not-for-profit, Architecture for Humanity, has recently collapsed amid recriminations.

The truth is we are what we are trained to be: and architecture schools are becoming art schools, not places for the training of a profession. Of course Yale and Kansas and others have a “Building Project” were students can get splinters and then go back to clicking a mouse. Of course schools like Yestermorrow try to get design and craft fused, versus separated at birth. Efforts like “The Rural Studio” bring fine arts to those who could never pay for patronage. The AIA created a Custom Residential Architecture Network to display architecture’s usefulness to the average homeowner.

But facts are facts and the occasional guilty make-up call and magical thinking does not obscure the fact that the academy, the AIA and the architectural press has become a niche choir singing to itself – and, unsurprisingly, hearing only perfect harmony.

What can change that? As fewer and fewer architects find work, only the modeling of the success of those who have work may make a dent in the tone deaf elitism of my profession’s “thought leaders”.

My office has about 55 active projects. I employ about 8 people. This has not changed through 4, count’em 4, recessions: do I win awards? A tiny few. Do I get published? Sure: but about 3 or 4 projects out of the 50-60 in my office are harvested from that blind exposure.

How have I never, ever, laid off an employee, missed a payroll, had enough work over 30 years (600 built things) to own my office’s building?

I work guilelessly with my clients and builders to actually be useful and inspirational in the scary process of designing and actually constructing something: I walk the talk:

Or rather, I drive and meet: consider yesterday, Saturday:

7am: drew the alternate scheme (the 4th) for my 2pm meeting

10am: meeting in Armonk, NY, with old clients to discuss a possible $25K porch.

11:45am: Meeting in Launch meeting with clients in Rowayton, CT, listening to their thoughts and looking at images for a new entry BEFORE I design anything.

2pm: Meeting in Cheshire, CT to go over the (now) 4 schemes for a garage and in-law apartment with a couple and a parent – and drew a 5th I had thought of in the 3 hours in the car between the 3 appointments so far.

3:30pm: meeting back at my office in Madison CT to go over hardlines owners had reviewed for a new kitchen/mudroom.

5pm: meeting in Ledyard with 20 year clients and my roofer to review the damage of an ice dam on a project we finished 2 years ago

Pretty glam, huh? Not one of these clients found me thru media: all thru personal contacts – no project over $200K, save the last which was almost 10x that.

No pretenses, money always on the table, no hidden design agendas, no feigning expertise, just listening, talking, working and driving a few hundred miles to help 5 families get closer to having a home they love in the world.

One or two of their projects may get published or win an award: but they will likely all get built. And be useful. And, I hope, be beautiful.

There are no small projects because there are no clients less important than others – because there are no humans less important than others: Wright, Yale, Corb and the AIA might find noblese oblige a nice corollary business gesture to Fine Arts Architecture in the Fashion Industry Model, but it is unsustainable.

Walking the talk means learning what school can’t teach: but if school, the AiA and architectural journalism offers up patronizing lip service to the literal 99% who do not think we may be useful, people can see through that yadda-yadda straight to hypocrisy.

You cannot listen when you talk: if architects speak to each other they hear nothing else: listening and being open to how others think and build is harder than sitting in front of a silent screen and clicking genius to an often unappreciative world.


April 23, 2015

home page

Homes are not libraries, gone are dictionaries and encyclopedias from the den- front and center is the family computer, and in each of our hands a device or two. So books in our homes are now more about reflecting who we are and what we value to ourselves and to our visitors: Books we have read and slipped into a bookcase for safe keeping are totems, relics and artifacts. The books we lay next to our beds, our toilets and most comfy place to sit are as near as the food at the dinner table. The books we hold in our hands as we read them are as alive as anything in our lives. So books are both alive in the present, there for the future, but embody and encapsulate a history – the very personal intimate history everyone has with the books they have read – whether its your Chem 201 textbook, Wuthering Heights or a murder mystery read on a vacation.

Books are not simple objects with one obvious use, just like our homes. Homes are not warehouses for our bodies, they are not big umbrellas, or blankets – homes (and places like the Institute Library) are mirrors of our values: places where past, present and hope come together to reflect where we are from, where we are, and where we want to go.



THE CHAPTERS: New England in 6 Easy Pieces

April 19, 2015

A HomeNewEngland11 cover_logo

This is first draft of the organization of the New Book by Steve Culpepper and me: its raw, so don’t blame Steve

2) “Colonies” 1620-1770 – Boston Massacre

Population: White 700,000 Native

Cleared Land 30%

The first 10 generations of immigrants created a New landscape from one that had existed since the last Ice Age at least 20,000 years prior. It was decisively Not England 2.0. Trees filled what might be fields, winters were brutal without the Gulf Stream to warm the air. The landscape was filled with multiple countries that had languages, borders and world views that these religious zealots did not understand.

Thriving became more realistic as the 18th century ushered in saw construction beyond survivalist protection, commerce versus subsistence and force and disease pushing those the settlers encountered away from competition for natural resources. Success begets opportunists, and the theocracies gave way to heterogeneous settlements, where Boston was rapidly becoming a hotbed of economic and political aggression. Unlike Mother England, ability meant more than class, nobility was authority writ less large, and getting rich was real possibility in one generation.

On March 5, 1770 in Boston, the King’s soldiers killed five male colonists and injured six others. The perception of the Crown was never the same again as Paul Revere and Samuel Adams saw it as a breaking point between a profitable a free New Place and its profligate absentee owner.

1) “Before” 28,000BCE to 1620 – Landing at Plymouth

Population: White 100 Native 75,000

Cleared land: 0%

More than a century before Europeans decided to “land” at Plymouth Newfoundland was visited by John Cabot. Florentine explorer Giovanni da Verrazano sailed all the way up the Atlantic coastline. His reports encourage Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Bartholomew Gosnold, Martin Pring, and George Weymouth to follow in his wake. The wild landscape and the native culture encouraged further investment and Weymouth brought back a Native American named Squanto who became fluent in English, and served to make the mysterious personal, encouraging colonization.

It was Captain John Smith, Governor of Virginia, in his 1614 trip to the virgin shores of what is now Massachusetts described this part of the world “New England”, and made a wild and often hostile place seem like a New Eden to the Puritans. But Smith also realized that the real treasure of the Maine coast was not precious metals, but cod.

“Discovery” and “New” must have seen very odd words to the 75,000 permanent residents New England’s uninvited emigrants found, whose culture, governance and thriving belied every denigration save the superiority of the tools of war. But the cruelest weapon inveighed against the indigenous people was were the billions of bacteria, viruses and ailments that had been part of the European ecosystem for thousands of years but had not followed the Native People across the Bering land bridge 30,000 years earlier.

While mostly benign for most Europeans these tiny invasive species had created genocide in the century between contact and colonization, reducing many tribes to memory in a huge bloodless culture war, that rendered what the Puritans found a different place than Cabot first visited.


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