By Roselind Hejl
Two story brick traditional with 4 bedrooms, 2.5 baths, island kitchen, and large deck! Sound familiar? We often talk about houses in terms of room count, along with a list of finishes, such as tile floors, granite counters, or faux paint. While this vocabulary conveys certain facts, it does not provide the tools to think about how to re-design a house in a fabulous way.
It is valuable to be able to make the decisions that transform a poor design into a house that is memorable, enduring, and widely appealing. To do this we need to go deeper than simply updating finishes or increasing square footage. We must think about how the structure shapes the feelings and experience of its inhabitants. In the words of Winston Churchill, "We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us." When a house has design flaws, we know intuitively that it does not feel right. On the other hand, a well designed house can make us feel inspired, enriched, and touched by a sense of order.
We often see houses that have some elements in the structure and site that appeal to us, but cannot be lived in without remodeling. Often our clients say that they want to find a house with good bones (meaning good basic design), that they can update. The truth is that most houses have some good design and some bad design. Painting walls and updating fixtures will not cover bad design. You will need to think about the house in a deeper way. Use these design processes to help you make the difficult decisions that will result in a house that many people would love to live in.
1. Relate the house to the site.
Think about how the house integrates and interacts with the land around it. This awareness is a basic, but often ignored, beginning. The connection and interplay between interior and exterior spaces enhances both in a powerful way.
Manage the views from each window. Is there an undesirable view into a neighbor's home or yard? Is there a nice view that is blocked by a wall or fireplace?
Notice how the walkway leads to the street, where privacy is needed, where noise buffering is needed, how drainage will work.
A side area could be a private garden, accessible from the main bedroom. A front porch overlooking the street could bring the house into a relationship with the neighborhood.
2. Bring in natural light.
Houses can be transformed by adding windows and other light sources. Generous light feels safe and uplifting, and attracts people toward it.
Natural light raises the level of importance and the beauty of rooms. Light all main rooms from two sides, if possible, to reduce glare and balance the light. Use glass doors, windows, skylights, transoms, or light tunnels.
Keep passive solar techniques in mind as you add windows and shading devices. The control of solar energy for light and heat is fundamental for an efficient and comfortable home.
3. Break down hard barriers between indoor and outdoor spaces.
Glass doors, screens, and walls that slide open can create semi-transparent walls, forming indoor/outdoor spaces that have enormous appeal.
Breezeways, garden rooms, bay windows, and screened porches are spaces that people love. These bring people into contact with the outdoors, yet may be furnished in a comfortable way.
4. Think of outdoor spaces as large rooms.
When all areas of the site are thought of as living spaces, new ideas open up. These outdoor spaces expand the house by creating a sense of semi-enclosure in various ways.
Their edges can be defined by trees, fences, wings of the house or other buildings. For example, an outdoor room may be a shady natural space on the site enclosed by a line of trees and shrubs.
Outdoor living spaces can be courtyards, walled gardens, trellis covered breezeways, stone patios, or outdoor showers. Think about their use and connectedness to the house.
Often, we see an exterior space that is built as an isolated destination place - a second floor deck, for example. If you have to make an effort to go there, the space will not be used. Outdoor spaces are most used when they are on paths used by people coming and going. This is why a front porch is a very appealing design element. People naturally meet here, and the porch connects with neighbors walking by.
A popular outdoor living area is the backyard deck. This is often seems to be an afterthought, tacked onto the house. Can it be covered and screened?
5. Consider widening roof overhangs or adding propped shutters over windows.
This is a green building technique in warm climates, blocking solar penetration.
The view of the outside roof structure seen from inside the house evokes a sense of shelter and protection.
If possible, extend the roof in some areas to create covered porches or breezeways. Rooms that are simultaneously open and protected are very appealing.
Inside the house, exposed rafters, rustic beams, or wood surfaces on the ceiling create feelings of strength and character in the home.
6. Review traffic flow - a crucial, but often ignored, design element.
Walk down the paths that bring you inside the front door, then lead you to various rooms through the house, and again to the outdoors. Do they cut through the middle of living areas? When this happens the living area will never feel complete and comfortable.
Circulation paths should lead along the edges of main rooms, and efficiently to private rooms. A maze like floorplan creates a sense of wasted energy and confusion. Few exterior doors may result in a subtle feeling of being trapped.
Bring multiple uses to hallways and connecting spaces with bookshelves, windows or window seats.
Set apart the main entrance with details such as a covered place to stand, special doors, benches, or potted plants.
7. Compare the sizes of rooms in proportion to each other.
People have an intuitive sense of the correct hierarchy of spaces. Small living spaces will seem wrong when combined with large bedrooms.
Homes with awkward design can often be improved by removing walls to make one large space from several smaller ones.
Consider the use and function of each room. Is the room to be used privately, such as a bedroom, study, or library? Or, will the family gather here to cook and eat informally? Some houses include formal areas, others do not. Some have many rooms, others are very open. There is no right or wrong decision here. Houses that have a true and intuitive appeal have a clarity as to the function of each room.
8. Choose materials as an integral part of the design - not as decorator selections made at the end.
For example, structural materials can be exposed, or flooring can be used to connect and unify spaces.
Bring in the beauty and texture of natural materials. Use materials that offset each other - warm and cool colors, rough and smooth textures, solid and delicate walls.
Use materials to connect the house to the site - for example, a wood clad house surrounded by woods, or a stone house next to outcroppings of stone. Or, connect the house to the neighborhood with historic colors and siding.
Repeat materials and colors to unify the interior and exterior.