Modern Problems

By Dan Maginn / Published by Dwell
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Love superclean design but fear the building inspector? Here's our guide to skirting those modernist missteps.

After years of drooling over photos of guardrail-free, precipitously canti­levered Chilean beach houses, you have decided to take the plunge and live the dream yourself. But before you fall in love with a pristine design filled with adrenaline-inducing fea­tures, you might want to engage your reality sensors and proactively disarm some of the code landmines that have been lovingly placed by your building official.

Don't Trust Anything over 30
The IRC requires a guardrail for any occupied space adjacent to a vertical drop of 30 inches or more. Aside from designing a sexy guardrail system (which is certainly a possibility if your architect is up to the task), there are a couple of ways to maintain some spatial drama. Place the landing of a switch­back staircase as the "fourth step"—which works out handily to between 24 and 28 inches. You’ll still need handrails for these first few steps and the landing, but you won’t need a guardrail. You can perform a similar trick on exterior spaces, too—with some creative sitework and landscap­ing around patio or terrace, you can potentially build up grade to with­in 30 inches of its surface and nix the need for a guardrail altogether.

Heed the Sphere
A typical baby is made of two parts: a cantaloupe-size head and an oddly strong body that powers the head into various objects. If the baby head is powered into a hole slightly bigger than the head, then the body can’t easily back it out again. These head-size, IRC-violating holes (symbolized by the four-inch sphere) tend to show up on staircases and terraces—places where architects try to emphasize the dramatic experiential quality of vertical space. What to do? Consider using a sheet material for your guardrail panels that allows light in but keeps baby heads out. The last couple years have seen an explosion of perforated metal and translucent resin-based options.

Visualize the Yard Mullet
On the one hand, you see the Prairie Dropseed grass in your front yard as a testament to your appreciation of natural ecosystems. On the other, your neighbor (and possibly your zoning ordinance or neighborhood association bylaws) sees it as a middle-finger-style manifestation of your radical eco-agenda. Preemptively mute your neighbor and confound the by­laws by mowing a tidy two-foot stripe around the perimeter of your property every few weeks.

Embrace the Energy Code
To some old-school modernists, if the purity of a design meant an expanse of glass on the west side of the house, so be it. Luckily, where common sense and four-figure utility bills have failed to stop the madness, energy codes adopted by many municipalities have succeeded. Any good designer will  embrace the site he is given by his client and will fine-tune different building sys­tems (roof, walls, HVAC, etc.) to respond to different solar orientations. Maximum glass was always a bit of a modern cliché—and now it can stop you from getting a building permit.


Dan Maginn


Dan Maginn is an AIA-member architect who lives and carpools to work with his wife, Keri, in Kansas City. Although he and his partners at El Dorado Inc. are extremely interested in promoting sustainable design on all scales, he does not consider himself to be an "eco-warrior." Instead he prefers the term "eco-tainment specialist"

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