Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Houses for Better Living (Part Two)

             Part Two continues the list of residential design principles started on part one.

              Houses should have a “narrow”footprint.The idea is that the proper amount
              of light and air get to all the rooms; any wall that is farther than 25 feet
              from a window is too far.
             All “rooms for living” such as living and dining rooms should have two
              ways in and out of them. This will ensure proper circulation when you
              have a party. 
              Grand stairs belong in “Gone with the Wind” Southern mansions. Most
houses do
              not need to express the stair this way; in point of fact, it is fitting to keep it tucked to
              the side since it leads to the private areas of the house. 
Plan of a house designed by David Adler (note stair hall).
Stair hall with stair "tucked to the side"
 Whenever possible, avoid long corridors but, if they cannot be avoided then
              create stopping places along the way for a bench or a “phone table”. In
              tropical climates these corridors used to be on the exterior of the house, so
              they would overlook the lush exterior gardens or patios.  
Visual relief in interior corridor
Exterior corridor provides access to house's rooms
          The “focal point”of a living room or dining room is usually the fireplace;
               whenever possible, the preferred position for a fireplace is on the long walls.
               Where there is no fireplace, the focal point may simply be a view.
               The “focal point” of the kitchen is typically the stove so, make it the center
               The “focal point” of the bathroom is typically the vanity so, make it
Kitchen focused on range
Living room focused on fireplace
    Avoid entering bedrooms on the side of the bed. Enter the bedroom
    facing the room so that you can see the totality of the room instead of
    immediately bumping into the biggest piece of furniture right under your
    nose as you walk in.  
Enter the bedroom facing the whole room
Some people compare our present “post-recession” time with the “post-depression” time of the late 1903’s and early 1940’s.  At that time, architecture in the US was beginning to feel the impact of European Modernism but, there were several architects who kept traditional residential architecture alive such as Royal Barry Wills, Dwight James Baum, Cameron Clark, James Robert Cerny, John Straub, Paul R. Williams, and H. Roy Kelley. In1938, the editors of Life magazine sponsored a competition in which they paired four traditional architects with four modernist architects and four real clients.  Royal Barry Wills was paired with Frank Lloyd Wright; Wills won the competition. In a 1946 article on Wills, published in Life magazine, the editors noted (against their own editorial preference) that colonial designs were "excellent utilitarian objects" and were therefore no less rational than any other modernist design of their time.

House floor plan by Royal Barry Wills

House floor plan by Dwight James Baum
Today as before, the “tension” between traditional and modernist design preferences is still very much in the air. The architectural establishment has virtually ignored any recent contribution of traditional architects.  Still, houses, cultural, public, and commercial structures are being built following traditional architectural principles. There are many contemporary designers who claim that innovative designs will contribute to solve our financial woes. There is no doubt that innovation should play a significant role in the solution, but given our human nature to dwell comfortably in rooms, we must also pay attention to time proven principles that focus on the person who occupies the room.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Houses for Better Living (Part One)

As architects, we may sometimes get involved in “controversial” conversations about the latest architectural design article in the NY Times, taste, or modern versus traditional design.  My friends know that I have been involved in designing houses for high net worth individuals and they think that my taste has developed to the point where whatever I say will be colored by that experience.  Some of them, those who know me better, freely ask my opinions on how they could improve their living room, bathroom, or kitchen. They are taken by surprise when I tell them that the principles to find the “solution” for their particular problem are the same ones that we use to guide our decisions with all of our clients. These principles are simply based on human comfort and on how people dwell comfortably in the rooms they occupy. They apply to houses in all income brackets because they are based on people, not wealth. In fact these principles are found in almost all houses designed before World War II. In Puerto Rico, where I grew up, pre- World War II houses were designed following these basic principles, the only difference between the houses for the wealthy and those for the rest was their size, materials, and the surface treatment of the rooms. So in deference to all my friends who live in Cape Cods and Colonial Revival houses which pepper our American landscape, here’s a list of principles to help guide any house design project.  At the end of the day, I think you will agree, these simply make common sense. Some of these principles engage the overall design of the house; others refer to the individual rooms.

Elements of the rooms scaled to the room's proportions
Houses are basically a collection of rooms, not undefined spaces. People occupy these rooms and therefore the scale of the room defines how comfortable a person feels in it. If the room is too big, too narrow, too short, or too tall people will not feel comfortable. Scale is a measurement of an element in the room relative to the overall size of the room and ultimately relative to an average sized person; the individual elements of the room should be scaled appropriately. Everything starts with the human condition.

The openings in a room (windows and doors) should be properly proportioned to the room.  The building code requires openings to be a certain minimum size to provide adequate light and air. Beyond the code requirements, if the openings are too big or too small, too tall or too short, people will not feel comfortable. 
Modest window openings scaled to a modestly sized room
 Besides enclosing and separating rooms, walls are used to display pictures and other memorabilia and to define and give character to the room. The room’s character is typically expressed by its moldings which divide the walls into: top (crown molding), middle (wainscoting or simply the wall proper), and bottom (base molding). These moldings should be properly proportioned to the room so that people feel comfortable in it. They are also designed more or less elaborately depending on the character of the architecture and the room. Georgian houses have more elaborate moldings than beach houses; living rooms, dining rooms, and entry halls have more elaborate moldings than kitchens, bathrooms, or bedrooms.
Colonial entry with elaborate moldings

Lake house bedroom with simple moldings