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



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