Towards a New Beehive Architecture


The traditional high-rise development.

Commercial beekeepers have relied on the Langstroth hive, basically a set of crates. Inside each crate are rows of wooden frames with foundation inserts that bees can build honeycomb on and use it to store all their worldly goods–which then the beekeepers can get at easily. The Langstroth model allows additional crates to be stacked on as the hive gets bigger and the bees produce more honey. It is a very modular and utilitarian approach to housing bees, and one that maximizes honey production. But now beekeeping is becoming more popular for backyard beekeepers, who find themselves guardians of a mini-empire, with the queen and her thousands of minions, and the responsibilities for maintaining the empire, there is the freedom to create more creative structures for the bees other than the monolithic Langstroth. Some beekeepers see themselves mainly as stewards of a dwindling bee population, not as robbers of honey.

A top-bar hive.

A top-bar hive.

Popular among new beekeepers is the top-bar hive, which can have an observation window to allow “newbees” the chance to see what is going on during the hive-building process. It is considered a more natural way of keeping bees, since they are allowed to build their home from scratch. Since top-bar hives typically have no foundation, the bees build their own comb, which is typically removed during honey harvesting. The bees thus produce less honey than they would if they still had their old comb to get started with.

The consumer-friendly Urban Beehive.

The consumer-friendly Urban Beehive.

There is the modern “Dwell” version of the Langstroth, the Urban Beehive by Rowan Dunford, who designed it as a school project at the Auckland University of Technology, and is working on developing it into a commercial product. It  has colored plastic sides and looks like it might make a nice stool if you gave up beekeeping. It is supposed to combine the benefits of top-bar hives: the rendering of the insides shows top bars instead of frames. No viewing window, alas.


Stylish English beehives.

On the traditional side, the beehives on top of Fortnum & Mason are Langstroth hives gussied up to look like Orientalist temples. Would you care about your bees more if you raised them in such elegant looking structures? You would still have to deal with the gooey, sticky interiors though.


There is plenty of room for creativity.

The HexPlex Pagoda Palace (another modified Langstroth) acknowledges the bees’ technical artistry in building hexagonal comb. It is a custom project by Oliver Frank of Landscapia.





The Mom Equivalent of a Shiny New Sports Car

We spotted this beaut at the California Ave. Palo Alto Farmers’ Market on Sunday.


It’s the Tour Populair from the venerable company Royal Dutch Gazelle, which continues to produce bikes with vintage steel frames and leather Brooks saddles.  The owner tricked it out even further with a wooden crate and a Bobike Tour bike seat (another Dutch product). There’s a mirror mounted to the leather-wrapped handlebars and at least four lights (headlight, front wheel light, tail light, one integrated into the child seat). Here is someone who takes their cruising around town seriously.

Altogether, this fully-loaded setup would set you back around $2500 (and of course, you’d have to get the appropriate hat-helmet). Yes, it’s expensive for a bike. But compare that to a Tesla, which costs $70,000.



The Perfect Gift for the Sartorially Inclined Cyclist

Finally, a solution to helmet hair: a helmet disguised as a hat, so you can leave it on wherever you go.


The Yakkay bike helmet with a denim cover.

Made by Yakkay, a company based in Copenhagen (of course!), the helmets have a standard hard shell. Over on top goes a fabric hat, which can be switched out for a different look. The price (around $150) puts the helmets into the Very Special Gift category. But then you can go straight from your bike commute to a garden party. We’re imagining Helena Bonham Carter wearing the one below on a jaunt through the English countryside.

The Yakkay helmet with a multicolored tweed cover.

The Yakkay helmet with a multicolored tweed cover.

Get Smart with Your Newsletter Sign-Up


What’s the best way to get people to sign up for your newsletter? Many websites try and cajole people into it, but the best enticement we’ve seen recently is from design company Blu Dot. You see this cute pop-up if you are a new visitor to their website.

Also popular is the more straightforward discount on your first order. This one is from Serena & Lily.


Unfortunately, many companies make customers deliberately opt-out of their newsletter if they buy something. You have to uncheck a pre-checked box, or check a box that says “Do not add me to your email list.” Back in 2011, the EU banned pre-checked boxes to help consumers avoid add-on costs that they were obliviously signing up for.


Beware the annoying pre-checked box, my friend!




Paint the Town Green with Bike Lanes


Market Street in San Francisco. Photography from


European cities have brightly colored lanes that clearly mark the part of the road set aside for bikes. In the last decade, more US cities, including Portland, New York, and San Francisco, are implementing colored bike lanes on particularly busy streets and hazardous intersections. Expect to see this trend continue to grow as the number of commuter cyclists increases, and consequently the number of accidents. The colored lanes help motorists pay more attention to bicyclists, deter illegal parking, and help cyclists find a safe path through busy intersections.


Various studies have shown that using color at critical junctions helps improve bicycle safety. In 1999, Portland added blue lanes to 10 problematic intersections and released a detailed report [PDF] of its findings. Before the blue lanes, 72 percent of motorists yielded to cyclists; afterwards, the number increased to 92 percent. A very large percentage of cyclists–76 percent–felt that they were safer with the highly visible markings. A Danish study cited by the Portland report found that blue bike lanes reduced bicycle-auto collisions by 38 percent, and fatalities and serious injuries by 71 percent.

A dedicated/off-street bike path or physically separated bike lane may be the ideal. But for municipalities, adding color to an existing bike lane is an economical way of improving safety and a highly visible way to tout themselves as bike-friendly places. The book Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco discusses how the city improved one of its main thoroughfares by creating a barrier between the car lane and a green-painted bike lane, pointing out that shortly after, “Twitter signed a lease for office space directly on the new green bike lane.”


Near Palo Alto’s California Ave., bicyclists can see where they have to watch out for cars crossing their path.

While there are no nationwide guidelines for the color of these bike lanes, the trend is towards green. Portland originally decided to go with blue because other colors had a distinctive meaning (while blue was only associated with handicapped parking), blue was more visible to the color-blind, and community surveys were overwhelmingly in favor of blue. However, other cities have all gone with green. (Los Angeles recently repainted a lane a more low-key teal because film production companies complained that the bright green lane was visually distracting.) In time, green may no longer be associated with jealousy, but with civility and graciousness.









Give Me a Sign


It’s campaign season, which means that the neighborhood streets are virtually yelling at us.

In their desire to create a clear call to action, the proponents sometimes amp up the visual noise until it is deafening. Meanwhile, no one has really determined whether campaign signs are actually effective in changing public opinion. They may simply be a way to express solidarity–or perhaps dissent–with your next-door neighbor, as a 2008 study suggests.

And is it possible to take a less strident tone and still get the point across? Signs that tell us what to do (or what not to do) often come across as martinets barking orders, and may even inspire insubordination. (For teenagers, is there any greater temptation to trespass than a prominent “Do Not Enter” sign?)

Here’s an example of a sign that asks–rather than insists–that we be considerate.


The genteel cursive font supports the message.  And the “please” at the end is just the right touch: This is how we try and teach our children to talk. Why not exhibit the same good manners in public pronouncements?

Another set of signs comes from the high-speed train system in France, which not only has sleek cafe cars, but also charming signs to tell you where it’s ok to use your cell phone. (These particular signs may not still be in use, since they date back a number of years.)


Très civilized, non?



The Tiniest Library


Near downtown Palo Alto, there is a dollhouse in someone’s yard. It’s a mini-replica of the bigger Craftsman-style house, complete with little wooden shingles and front porch. However, it’s not one of those expensive custom playhouses that are modeled after the main house. In this case, the homemade structure is about the size of a birdhouse. Mounted securely on a post at eye level, it contains about 20 books, protected from the weather behind a Plexiglas door.

Libraries are potent symbols of community and communal ownership. We are all borrowers and all richer for it. By establishing this library, this family’s kids get to have the fun of sharing their books with everyone. And hopefully their generosity is repaid by strangers who replace them with other books.

In his book Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into a Place for Play, author Mike Lanza talks about the importance of creating a neighborhood hangout where kids can play with others (instead giving their brains over to TV or video games). He asks people to look at their front yards through a new lens. Instead of simply considering its aesthetic value, how do you maximize its value as an outdoor room where kids can congregate? If it’s fenced it in or blocked it off with tall hedges, it’s cordoned off for private use; if it’s visibly open to the street, it’s also open to the possibilities of what comes along. And if there are kid-friendly enticements–a bench, a basketball hoop, a sandbox–its intended use becomes clearer.

The tiny library says, “We want to share our books.” If the yard wasn’t fenced off and there was a bench next to the library, the message would be, “Stop and read for a while.”



Dead-End Design in “Breaking Bad”

“Breaking Bad” is majestic in scope: It explores our collective fears about the dwindling middle class, exorbitant medical costs, an ethnic population that outnumbers the blancos, even the dark side of the DIY/maker revolution. Tucked within the mix is also a story about the evolution of the American city. As the characters travel between the different homes, buildings, and parts of town, we can see for ourselves how a quintessentially middle-class town like Albuquerque can turn into the new inner city, where illicit drugs are brewed and large sums of cash are tucked behind the insulation. Meanwhile, Walt’s hot new tech startup sets up business in a reclaimed laundry.

[Note: No spoilers are lurking here, since we’re still in the middle of Season 3.]


Walt and Skyler’s home, in the northeast section of Albuquerque, showcases the first iteration of the American Dream. The house is clearly decades-old; most of the houses in this area were built in the 1970s and 1980s. The rock landscaping hearkens back to a time when it was hip to have beds of quartz or lava rocks surrounding your home. This ranch house could be in the aging suburbs of almost any city, though the painted wood beams feel a little more Western than, say, faux shutters. The design of the house revolves around the garage (some urban design academics talk about the suburbs as “garagescapes“). You have to drive to get anywhere–and there’s a lot of driving in “Breaking Bad”.


The house is located smack at a sharp T-stop, so the driveway is directly after the stop sign. It makes the house feel more exposed to the street. This type of intersection is the result of sloppy planning; most developments today offset the houses to avoid this effect.


The hallmark of these suburban homes is their cheap and cheerful construction. Walt’s house has an inexpensive pier-and-beam foundation and an unfinished crawlspace. It’s fairly easy for Walt to break into his house, and for Mike to drill a hole through the stucco facade.


Photography from

Meanwhile, Hank and Marie’s house is in the luxury version of the suburbs, located in the newer, fancier neighborhood of Sandia Heights. There’s better architecture here with a sense of place, styled to look like traditional adobes, native landscaping, and better views. Yet this is still a car-centric lifestyle.


Jesse’s house, which belonged to his aunt, is a lovely old Spanish Revival home near Old Town. As congestion and commuting has made driving more of a hassle than a privilege, the ultimate luxury today is to be within walking distance of shopping and amenities. We don’t really see Jesse taking advantage of this, but the high price that his parents were asking for the house shows what a premium this location commands.


Photography from Breaking Bad wiki.

Walt’s underground lab is in an industrial area on the outskirts of town, hidden under a laundry. There’s a secret entrance that magically opens up like something out of a James Bond movie; a staircase descends into a multilevel space with stainless steel everywhere. It’s a high-tech wonderland, where even Jesse can appreciate the possibilities. The laundry is not the best example, but vintage industrial buildings everywhere are being revived as high-tech spaces. On the outside, you’re in the early part of the century. On the inside, you’re in the future. Buildings allow for this kind of time travel, and these old factories and industrial buildings–which were built to last, unlike flimsy houses in the suburbs–are now the new premium housing and office space. What we do with these spaces remains to be seen; hopefully good architecture will outlast any particular agenda.


Hat tip to ABQ native Amanda Walter for sharing her knowledge about the city.