Thursday, January 31, 2013

Residential Brick Ovens

The current popularity of residential brick ovens appears to be based on their entertainment value.  A good enough reason.

A group of guests (except for a couple of guys, beers in hand) won't gather around a grill.  Your guests certainly won't stand in front of your kitchen range, fascinated by the view through the heat-proof window of the oven.

All the wood-fired brick ovens, I've built or seen attract watchers.  Many of them provoke participation.

The added bonus of wood-fired brick ovens comes from their versatility as cooking devices.  Avid cooks dream of brick ovens.

The final bonus is the connection to a way of cooking that is millennia-old.

Residential wood-fired brick ovens, especially indoor installations, require some care to insure safe operation.  Fortunately, modern refractory materials: insulation, insulated chimney components, and various fire-proof design elements, make common-sense conformation to local codes easier.

Monday, January 28, 2013


People, in general, are sensitive to non-verbal signals. A closed door means privacy. Lights on over a marquee means there’s a show going on, a series of open doors invites us to puzzle over the mystery at the last door. Dark doors are ominous, brightly-lit interiors signal activity.

The signals we place in and around our landscape shape our own and any visitors sense of invitation
The first passage anyone passes through sets up an expectation of what our garden or even our home or community is willing to share.

One of the favorite gardens that I have designed fills the entire front yard of a simple Cape Cod house on a perfectly flat lot. There is no lawn.  The fieldstone wall I built sinuously encloses the space between the street and the house and is filled with trees, shrubs and perennials.

An interior path crosses through this garden and winds around to the more private back yard. This exuberant garden is what walkers and other passersby see and it reflects the community-involved personality of the owner. It is an invitation.

When we invite people to pass through our garden on their way to our front door, we are delivering an invitation. A stark walkway, whether we intend it or not, delivers a stark invitation; one that we may have to work hard to overcome on the other side of the door.

Our other senses are also attuned to signals of invitation.  Sound, smell, and texture can create inviting spaces.

As a side note: contained fire and food are always an invitation... so is a mystery, like a clock face hanging in the sky like a full moon.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Stone Roofs

Stone is such a permanent, elemental, building material that its use for roofing a structure provides a timeless appearance.

For a few years now I've been slating roofs with old recycled roof slates.
Roofing slate is thin, tough, and can be worked with a unique set of tools.
A paper-cutter-like tool puts a chipped but perfect edge on the trimmed side of a slate.
A pointed hammer pops a hole (from the back) that produces a counter-sunk blowout which accommodates the copper nails.

Patio slate cannot be used as it will shatter.

In France, the Perigord of the Aquitaine region, houses are roofed with 'loes',  a limestone rock layered like shingles.  These very beautiful roofs have lasted for centuries (or until termites have eaten the beams that support them).

Recently in Ventura CA, I used thin schist to roof a brick oven.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

From the Sacred to the Vernacular

Garden House by North Star Stoneworks
Chapel ruin in County Clare, Ireland
It has been said that we have our feet in the earth and our heads in the heavens.  

We unconsciously seek to bring together our sense of the divine and the furniture of our everyday lives.  The result is most profoundly seen in gardens.  The plants we choose to inhabit our gardens reflect our own unique balance between heaven and earth.  Landscape designs that recognize the emotional significance of a hollyhock, an oak tree, or bed of moss succeed.  

As my work has evolved from plantsmanship and stone works, to building actual buildings, I have discovered that the same principle applies.

garden  by North Star Stoneworks
Over the years it  has saddened me to see that a tremendous quantity of lumber and masonry is applied to buildings that have no meaning beyond the box that shelters the owners.  This sounds harsh.

With just a bit more thought, and perhaps introspection, the same materials could be used to create homes that are alive with the personalities and dreams of the owners.  Part of the responsibility lies with the builders, who desire efficiency (read: mass production) and part with the buyers who feel that is all they can get from their budget.

'Spin and Margie's Desert Hideaway
Neither of these are true.  The added effort to reform the materials is in the planning.
Frank Lloyd Wright was once challenged to build a house for $6000.00 (in the 1950's).  He did it even though his other projects ran 10 to 100 times that budget.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Unintentional Landscape

Gardens that aren't "GARDENS" (stiff pinky finger----tea cup, pursed-lips) appeal to me.

Wall garden, Montalcino, Italy
Hillside terrace garden, Ravello, Italy
Florence, Italy
Peach Orchard, Greene, Maine, USA
In Ravello, Italy terrace gardens are the rule and every available space serves double purpose. A trellis that will shade in summer covers a walkway and also bears fruit.

It is often my litmus test of a successful landscape design or building project that the final result seems...unintentional.

To create such a place, I train myself to see the elements that are shouting 'ME, ME, ME!' and remove them or subdue them.  They may be ones that exist on the site or ones I have placed inappropriately.

Of course, if a 'ME' garden is what is called for, the design must not shy away from shouting.  We'll call this 'Boldness' to give it its due.

An example of such landscape design strikes me every time I visit the Getty Center in Los Angeles, California.  This is a set of museum buildings on a hilltop that is so well-tuned that even the most extravagent landscape features seem natural.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Arctic Pizza Making

Many of the ovens I build get fired up more than expected because the owners become enamored of the cooking method.  It's happened with my own oven.
One three-season oven, built off of the kitchen gets fired twice a week.

This Youtube:
was produced last summer by my very enthusiastic customers.  As evidenced by this photo, taken following a New England snowstorm, cold weather hasn't dampened their enthusiasm.

Maybe the caption should be: "Just Do It!"

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Attention to Detail

interior of St.Charles elongated dome oven
interior of the Cathedral in Chartres
Emily, the amazing pastry chef at Cinque Terre
Detail often sets one creation apart from the rest.  Recently, I bought a mounted Argentinian Winged Stick Insect.  It is 8 inches long and stunning in its adapted beauty.

stone roof and bell in France
Noticing details that are appropriate to any creation has become one of the pleasures of my work. 

rough schist stone and smooth ocean key stone: Ventura oven

The house I designed and built

Jerusalem stone incorporated in the Ventura brick oven
Here are some examples from recent brick ovens I've built and from elsewhere.
Rebar 'trees' supporting bouganvillia at Getty Center, LA

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Indoor Brick Oven

Judging by the number of views of my indoor brick oven detail posts, more and more people are considering the advantages of some connection between the brick oven and the kitchen.

Now in the last week of construction (awaiting the multiple layers of granite facing) the oven shown will be the feature of a very large loft room in a small Maine city.

This project has been the result of cooperation between many different contractors, all do some part of a larger build. 

Many thanks to Jeff of Great Falls Construction.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Smoking Food in a Brick Oven

I've seen the smokers, big metal tanks or giant eggs.

The brick oven's versatility extends to smoking food.

After returning from the California project, I fired up my portable oven on a balmy (40 degree) winter evening in New Hampshire to roast and smoke a chunk of lamb.  Friends arrived with a surprise pot of uncooked mussels and par-roasted vegetables.

The method of roasting and smoking in a brick oven is simple.
The oven is 'spiked' (see previous post).  This brings the apparent surface temperature of the interior brick to about 700 degrees.  The door is shut for an hour.   The oven brick, having absorbed the heat, is now an even 450 degrees.

I place an applewood log in the oven, push it against the coals towards the back of the oven, and slide the pan with the lamb roast (or other roast, ribs, turkey, pork, ostrich, etc) in front of the log and shut the door.

On this night, we let the roast cook for 40 minutes and then added the mussels and vegetables alongside the roast.

Whenever the door was opened it was apparent that the applewood log was smoldering, filling the oven chamber with delicious smoke.

The food came out with a rich smoke flavor.

The whole process required about five pieces of hardwood and the one chunk of applewood.  Stoking time up front was about 15 minutes divided into five-minute visits every half-hour (very little labor).

Other methods of smoking food include setting a grill up on bricks in the mouth and adding green twigs of rosemary or apple on the coals.  Slow roasting a day or more after firing the oven allows for an even greater range of cooking.

Enjoyment time was the whole evening.

Postscript:  a week later we made soup with the leftover lamb and the smoke flavor infused the broth.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Brick Ovens and Wine Caves

As I was finishing the Ventura brick oven and wine cave project (minus the soon-arriving oak door and cooling unit), I realized I was working both ends of the structure and food spectrum.

The brick oven (too obviously) is built to hold heat; the wine cave is intended to hold cool.

The brick oven produces baked, roasted, broiled foods; the wine cave contains bottles of fermented grape juice (basically).

Both have similar physical features:  Brick, arches, masonry, etc.

At opposite ends of the small hillside property, they make good companions.