The “White Trim Syndrome”all over Rain City- There’s a whole lot more to designing homes

Mercer Island and a lot of other nice places are being overrun by “Spec Builders” madly producing these oversize boxes with their wide white trim. Other tell-tale touches of their indifferent computer-driven drafting (don’t call it “design”) are the tapered posts with pasted on faux river rock.

While fronts are abundantly and ineptly adorned, both sides and the back are usually left plain- except for perhaps some lumber yard non-wood wide white trim. Here are some examples:
white trim



54 thoughts on “The “White Trim Syndrome”all over Rain City- There’s a whole lot more to designing homes

  1. I like the point that computer drafting shows up in the house.

    This gets at what weirds me out about these houses. I think of almost any style of building as having some kind of pattern or rhythm of windows, a pattern that corresponds to the logic of the interior. Here I just see big boxy house-volumes, and the windows do nothing to break that up, or in any way humanize those blank walls.

    Maybe folks in the NW just don’t like windows, though your designs are wonderfully windowed.

  2. jerry, i agree with your criticism of current trends in brand new residential construction, but unfortunately that is what the market has been demanding. it will continue as long as it sells.

    but i believe the knock on computer aided design is off base, especially considering technology allows for production of some wonderful designs that werent previously possible. like everything else, design is similar in that the main problem occurs between the mouse/pencil and chair seat.

  3. Fillmore- I don’t think the market has been “demanding” what’s been foisted on it. And while I’ve used computers since the ’80s CPM dawn of time, I know my old-fashioned T-Square really works the best (for me) as a design tool. J-

  4. My sense, fillmore, based on unscientific sampling, is that the built-on-spec houses are disproportionately ugly. The fact that builders eventually sell them doesn’t tell us a whole lot. The priority seems to be square footage.

    I’m for example possibly in the market for a townhouse, but my choices range from bland to hideous — they’re all generic, spec-built places sold on features and finishes.

  5. I went to see a house once on Magnolia Bluff. Magnificent view! It was a lovely tudor home, but with tiny little windows on the view side. It was as if whomever had it built there, ignored the view entirely.

  6. Jerry,

    Don’t “mid-century” style homes generally require larger lots than a lot of the newer homes? Do you know anyone who is building mid-century style today form scratch? How large of a lot would one require?

  7. mcm homes dont necessarily require any more area than a typical home. there are a lot in bellevue to kirkland, and anything much over 10k sf lot doesnt seem to be typical.

    lazor office and michelle kauffman both do prefab modern residential, michelle is actually local. depending on building square footage, lot size is only a consideration based on code requirements and client desires. but thats always the case with anything.

  8. colin, you wont find any mcm townhouses, but ive seen some really awesome-designed new construction modern units on the market in seattle. there are also some decent looking models at element in redmond that keep dropping in price.

    i am still convinced that the average buyer is looking for granite/stainless kitchens, crown molding, etc. the common criticism of modern design is that its too sterile and not warm enough for most peoples tastes.

  9. fillmore writes above: “i am still convinced that the average buyer is looking for granite/stainless kitchens, crown molding, etc. the common criticism of modern design is that its too sterile and not warm enough for most peoples tastes”. to which I say, there’s no reason MCM homes can’t be warm and inviting- (ours certainly is). However crown molding is where I draw the line in my updating work. It just serves no purpose in modern homes. J-

  10. and furthermore-crown molding does serve a purpose-
    it makes a goodly sale of plastic wood moldings from the lumber yard and
    allows the carpenter to show his considerable skills. However, these things add nothing to the livability of the home while adding unnecessary cost. J-

  11. jerry, ive seen photos you have posted of your own residence before on your website. i love the front color elevation after it had just been built, still brand new. i wish you would restore it back to the original exposed cmu and wood siding, with privacy screen fence. that photo is an amazing capture of period correctness. i wish i could find something even half as nice, thats affordable.

  12. Fillmore- as to “Period Correctness”, this MCM house today is much warmer in feeling than it was when first built. The stucco over the concrete blocks was done by a previous owner- it’s a great touch that we love. Jerry

  13. I think the city is the bigger culprit since they allow spec building in established communities because they issue the permits. Even areas farther north of Mercer Island and the greater Seattle are seeing the exact same type of building and disruption of neighborhoods/communities original style and feel.

  14. Nowhere else in our lives do we allow such important choices to be made by those in no way qualified to make said choices “Spec” Building as such is all too often done with the cheapest, most inept plans available. Here’s an example up your way of what’s styled “Craftsman”. JG

  15. Thank you for raising these questions about house styles. My wife and I are about to build a house, so we are paying careful attention to choices like this.

    In my opinion, the wide white trim around the windows and doors is an improvement over the run-of-the-mill soufflé house. One hallmark of soufflé houses has been the use of the cheapest possible window trim — often no window trim at all. The wide white trim is a partial return to the days when windows, window sills, and working shutters were valued features of traditional-looking houses.

    On the other hand, the white trim at the corners of these houses does not look right to my eye. Traditionally, a good siding job had corners with the same visual texture as the sides of the house. These builders might have put trim on the corners instead of hiring expert siders to finish the corners of the siding.

    CAD might encourage the use of wide white trim. CAD programs tend to produce wire-frame drawings, which often have bright line borders around the windows, doors, and edges of the house. The wide white trim makes these houses look more like the CAD drawings. Whereas pencil-and-paper drawings might encourage rougher-textured (and darker) house corners.

    — Jasper

  16. Jasper- I’m inclined to agree with all your points above. However, whether CAD or T-Square is used, it all boils down to the skill and experience of the user combined with the expressed wants and/or needs of the client. Currently I’m working on a new Rain City Guide “Post” that will explain in detail just how I’ve done this in my lengthy custom home design practice. Lately I’ve been updating some of my earlier designs for their new owners. J-

  17. Great stuff Jerry! About time someone with legitimate design credentials put a foot up the $ss of the crappy spec/flipper builders out there…..this garbage will be viewed as the peak of the get-rich-quick housing boom…keep fighting the good fight as you’re the first non-silly ardel post that i’ve seen on this blog in long time.

  18. Thanks for the kind words Dag. It’s been hard to see my native NorthWest and Mercer Island being overrun by the “Dingbat”s and now all the “SuperDingbats”. (Not my term- I first heard it at the lumberyard during morning greetings being exchanged there). J-

  19. Pingback: The Modern and the Inane « Surrounded By Water: A Mercer Island Blog

  20. “Surrounded by Water” (above) shows the other side of the coin- I’m afraid it’s not only the aforementioned “Spec Builders” who are doing our Mercer Island a disservice by producing ugly, inept homes on lovely properties while paying little attention to beauty, graciousness and liveability, some architects are holding up their end as this blog points out so well.

  21. You disparge the use of CAD to draw. CAD is a tool just like a t-square and triangles, or a pencil. It is how you use the tool that makes the difference. There are some powerfull tools that enable you to be more productive. The choice is to use that gained productivity to create designs for houses that fit the site, be it small homes in new developments, or custom homes on an island.

    In terms of the houses being built with wide trim around the windows, I guess you haven’t seen what houses look like without the trim, which is even cheaper to build.

  22. Daniel- Thanks for writing. No matter what “tool” you use, it’s what you produce with it that matters. CAD- or pencils- won’t/don’t produce sufficiently talented designers sensitive to and aware of the many things that go into a good looking as well as liveable home design. As to no-trim windows, I have seen a lot of these in my time. Some fit a particular design and are entirely appropriate. And “gained productivity” rarely results in houses
    fitting their island or other sites better.

    • Further Thoughts on Drawing Tools per se- the advent of CAD in many cases has empowered numbers of would-be designers who confuse drawing production with design capability. As a former NCAARB Architectural License Examiner, I can testify that not everyone is cut out to be an architect. We expect our cars and other products to be well designed as we should the homes we live in and raise our families in.

  23. In my opinion it’s more what city planning agencies will approve more than the way the plans are generated. The CAD programs are a tool that does allow for mass production of repeditive design. That was further promoted by banking ssytems that lent willingly on designs they recognized.

    You can see it at our own Department of Planning and Development here in Seattle. The people behind the counter are rubber stamping what they think will get them the most housing units to generate tax revenue. Anything questionable is put to the test. Banks want to lend on proven products.

    So when you go in to get your custom home approved you better have a great architect who can show a proven track record. Otherwise go out to Architects Northwest and pick a plan out of a book.

    • Unfortunately David Losh is entirely right in his comment above. There are plenty of indifferent designs built already without bringing more into this foreclosed world of housing hurt. The Northwest used to be known for the architect-designed quality of its homes and well related gardens- that is until the big operators moved in and littered our till then virgin wooded hillsides with their mass-produced, CAD-created “product”.

  24. You might as well blame the Xerox machine for repetitive design products. Architects Northwest in Woodinville was already cataloging standardize design architectural plans and opened an office in 1989. CAD software for the types of architectural applications we think of really took off in 1992. It was after the release of Windows 95 that CAD had wider use.

    If I really researched it there was an architect who designed those town homes and began pushing for city approval in the 1980s. The first set of plans were hard for the city to take, but after that it was nothing.

  25. OK, let’s go down this path. Spec building is different from housing development. Spec building is with the intent of getting a return on investment. Housing development is a part of the over all economy and given many incentives by banks and government.

    If I go to a bank with five acres of land, owned free and clear, an asset of great value, plus a set of plans approved to build 100 housing units they will most likely give me money. If I am a spec builder with a spot lot or even a planned community with custom design features both the government and the bank will grind me to dust.

    It was the government approval along with the banks willingness to sell mortgage backed securities that made mass produced housing more profitable.

  26. To continue the David and Jerry Dialog, I infer from the well-done http// WebSite that you were raised in Bill Boeing’s Blue Ridge. The quality of builder homes there was/is far superior to what “merchant builders” are putting up now. Our young family lived in Innis Arden, another Bill Boeing development. Here’s another Google “Knol” on those pre-CAD days:

  27. I was in a house today on Capital Hill that had been completely renovated. Everything was the best. it had incredible detail, and nothing was left to the imagination. The investors who had bought, and restored the home went broke. The house sold for the price they originally paid before the work was done. It had sat on the market for a year and a half before it sold. The buyer is thrilled with the product, as they should be. The question of the day was why no one else bought it. The answer was simply that no one, but guys like us, would understand the value of the product.

    Buyers buy carp construction because that’s what they are used to.

    These same investors had done other projects on Capital Hill that were more main stream. This renovation was true to the original architectural details. The wood paneling was new, but you would never know that unless you really looked at it. It was the same for the fireplace which was shallow. It was all new, but you would never know. It was all new, but it looked like an old house.

    My point would be that buyers, Real Estate agents, or lenders have no clue about the product, they are just making easy deals with stuff they know. Very few people these days know the craft of building a Real Estate. We are surrounded by sales people.

  28. David- Sales people have to be knowledgeable about- and sympathetic to what they’re selling. This my Sales Manager father taught me early on. (in response to your-) my point would be that buyers, Real Estate agents, or lenders have no clue about the product, they are just making easy deals with stuff they know. Very few people these days know the craft of building a Real Estate. We are surrounded by sales people”.

  29. Well Jerry you opened a door that has been locked for a long time. Real Estate agents have relied on market data to determine the value of property for a very long time. There was a shift between getting the listing cards with the new houses for sale, then the NWMLS books of houses for sale, and now the computer.

    The same as you may think the computer generated the mass market housing units, I think the computer created the data that is now what agents use to sell a perceived value in property. If you look at sales data, and only sales data, you could make a case that a town home had the same value as a house. You could use square footage, sales data, construction cost, even land cost in the later years. Data could give town homes a false sense of value beyond a simple working class housing unit.

    Then we have maintenance issues. Electrical, and plumbing updates, yard care, siding, roof, basement, design function, windows and doors are all added values or deterrents. I’ve looked at some pretty ugly houses that were great values.

    Most agents don’t know the value of the properties they represent for either too much or too little. Buyers for sure are buying white picket fences, and the dream of home ownership. Home inspectors only paint the broad picture of what may be issues with a property, but very few make that list of maintenance items and the cost over the time of ownership.

    Anyway I’ve probably said too much already, but a buyer should be looking at value, today, five years from now, and ten years from now.

  30. David- I’ve appreciated your many and varied RCG Posts and Comments for quite some time. The one above is a good example and shows the considered thoughts of a true Real Estate Professional. However, you never did answer my question about you being born in Blue Ridge. Were you? J-

  31. I welcome lots of Comments on my RCG Posts and care not how “on thread” they are. As one can see by this one, widening the subject can lead to a broader discussion of the subject and related subjects which after all is why we participate in the Rain City Guide Forum. Industry statistics, sales tactics are only part of the Seattle Real Scene. Design and liveability considerations need covering and discussion also in that they are of great interest to the public we serve. JG-

  32. Another of the aforementioned “White Trim”s being offered on Mercer Island and elsewhere these days. (See Link below). Mid-Century, my native NorthWest used to be known all over the US for fine, architect-designed, site-specific, custom-craftman-builder-built homes.

    Many of these have been lovingly lived in by the original owners for these many years. These “HeritageHomes” as they have come to be known, are good buys in today’s market and are well-suited for skilled updating by experienced MCM residential architects.

  33. Those coming over the I-90 Bridge and taking the first Exit to West Mercer heading South are greeted by this example of what I call the “White Trim Syndrome”. Not to be discouraged, there are lots of well-designed homes on this lovely island of 22,000 people in the middle of three million.

    • I’ve just learned that the first house shown on my “White TrimSyndrome” Post is in Foreclosure. I take no pleasure whatsover in seeing this but I do lament the waste of good building materials as well as a prime Mercer Island building site.

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