Innovative solutions for creating healthy, efficient, eco-friendly homes

Tools for Creating Your Perfect Space

Most of us spend considerable time and money shopping for clothes to perfectly fit our various shapes, yet we live in ill-fitting, cookie-cutter houses designed for the mythical average family. We acknowledge food, clothing and shelter as the basic necessities of life, but we give shelter short shrift. We say, and act as if we believe, that "clothes make the man" and that "we are what we eat," yet live in what amount to motel rooms with long-term leases. To the extent that each of us is different - that the ways we spend our lives are different - we need spaces that fit our needs. In other words, we need to design our spaces. If you are affluent, you can hire an architect to analyze your family's requirements, but if you are not, you can be your own architect. Thoreau said it best in Walden: "There is some of the same fitness in a man's building his own house that there is in a bird's building its own nest. Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged? But alas! we do like cowbirds and cuckoos, which lay their eggs in nests which other birds have built, and cheer no traveller with their chattering and unmusical notes. Shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter?" This article and the next in this series will not turn you into an architect, but they will introduce some of the basic tools architects employ to design spaces that fit their occupants. The use of these tools can lead to a preliminary design you can then submit to a builder or professional designer for review and refinement. In one way, this process is actually preferable to the straight architectural route, because there will be more of you and less of the architect in the final design. The first tool is called an activity analysis. I've learned over years of helping owner-builders that this tool works well regardless of the student's architectural sophistication or personal idiosyncrasies. The Zen philosopher Alan Watts compared humans to the simplest of animals, worms, mere tubes that spend their lives taking in food at one end and discharging it at the other. If the category "food" includes all that we consume and throw away, I am tempted to agree. But humans fully engaged in life do other things as well. They sleep, dream, listen to music, make love, bathe, sit around and converse, come and go, work, and play. Unlike the monochromatic life of a worm, the life of a human comprises a spectrum of activities. Nearly all of these activities occur within spaces: inside spaces, outside spaces, big spaces, small spaces, shared spaces, solitary spaces. And they proceed regardless of the qualities of those spaces. The first step in design is to realize that the qualities of your activities (and therefore of your life) are affected by the qualities of the spaces in which they occur. To stress this point, architects call the spaces within a house "activity spaces." To the extent that your life is a series of activities, your house should be a collection of activity spaces to facilitate those activities. What are the defining qualities of an activity space? At the conceptual stage of design, they are three: size (area), orientation and degree of privacy. Area: No matter what the activity, there is always an area or size of space that works and feels best. It is frustrating to cook dinner in a too-small kitchen, but it is also frustrating never to achieve that wonderful intimacy experienced in a cozy dining room. Too-large areas can be as uncomfortable as those that are too small. So the size of a space is psychological as well as physical. How can you determine how large a space should be? How do you determine how large a shoe or suit should be? Unless you buy your clothes through a catalogue, try them on! Of course, you can't try on your space; it is yet to be built. But you can try on those of your friends and neighbors. The next time you're in your neighbor's house, pull out the 16-foot tape measure you just happen to have in your pocket and measure it up. Here's how the conversation might go: To your neighbor: "Jeez, Bob, we've always loved your living room; it's just perfect. Jane and I are designing our dream house. Do you mind if we steal your design?" To yourself: "Hmm - 12 by 15 feet. If we just made this room 2 feet wider, say 14 by 15 feet, we could spread the chairs out a bit so that jerk Bob wouldn't keep stepping on Jane's feet." To your neighbor: "What a foyer, Bob! I just love the formality, the sweep, the grandeur; don't you, Jane? Let's see here - 16 by 20 feet." To yourself: "Boy, what a waste of space. What delusions of grandeur! I'm sure glad I don't have to pay Bob's fuel bill. No wonder he drives that old car. And I'll bet they have to change the plug on the vacuum cleaner twice just to do the hall rug. It looks to me as if all of us could fit into 8 by 8 feet." Trying on friends' houses is fun and gratifying. In no time flat, you'll have the correct areas - unlike your neighbors - for all of your spaces. Orientation: Humans like to believe they are independent of the natural world: There is Nature, then there is us. For example, we ignore the fact that in our brains there tick three clocks corresponding to the three dominant astronomical cycles: daily, monthly and yearly. Of the three, the daily, or circadian, is the most powerful. We did not always wake to the sound of alarm clocks or drive-time talk shows. For at least 500,000 years we were wakened gently by the sunrise. Brain researchers have recently established the (duh!) fact that people who rise with the sun are generally happier and live longer than those jangled awake by alarm clocks. What does this have to do with orientation? Regardless of the season, the sun rises in the east, passes south at noon and sets in the west. Since most of our daily activities take place on a fairly regular schedule, there is usually a strong correlation between an activity and the position of the sun. Orientation is where the activity space should be located relative to the sun. For example, if you detest alarm clocks and prefer being awakened by the sun, the windows in your bedroom should face east. If, on the other hand, you like to sleep late, you should place your sleeping space on either the north or west side. Degree of privacy: When outside our homes, we are on guard. Crossing the street, driving a car, even sitting at a meeting of the board, we are in our alert, public mode. Once we cross the domestic threshold, however, most of us like to drop our guard. The ambience and familiarity of the home draw us into more trusting, intimate states. Between the boardroom and the bedroom lies a whole spectrum of privacy. Most people for whom boardrooms and bedrooms are daily events know the difficulty of the transition. Both time and space, and sometimes a martini, are required to effect the transition. But we are talking here about space. Nothing imparts a feeling of privacy and security more than sheer distance, separation. We must, therefore, assign a relative degree of privacy to each of our activity spaces. By arranging your spaces in order of privacy, the most private will be remote from the most public, and privacy will be achieved most naturally. So assign to each of your activity spaces a desired degree of privacy, with 1 being most public and 3 most private. For some spaces - a storage room, for example - privacy doesn't matter. For such spaces, just enter "any" or leave the entry blank. For most people, a kitchen or family room would rate a 1, a hallway and a living room 2, and a bedroom or study 3. Arranging in order of degree of privacy will prevent juxtaposition of bedrooms and kitchen, family room and study, bathroom and dining room. An example: Table 1 demonstrates how to create a simple activity analysis in tabular form. Close your eyes and picture your life as a movie, from waking till going back to bed. In the first column, list all of the things (activities) you see yourself doing within your home. Where (in which space) do you do these things? Next, after trying on your neighbors' spaces, adjust the sizes of the spaces to your likes, and enter their areas. Third, relate each activity to the time of day. At the time of the activity, where is the sun? Enter the orientation of the space as the direction its windows should face if you want to either catch the sun or avoid it. Finally, indicate the degree of privacy for each activity on a scale of 1 to 3. Remember that for some areas, such as closets, neither orientation nor privacy matters. When you have finished the table, you can add the individual areas and get a rough idea of how large a house you really need. You will probably be surprised at how small that area is. That is because most houses contain redundant and useless spaces. Home builders seem to think that every home must contain four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a living room, a media or family room, and a dining room. In reality, most families have from zero to two children and spend all of their time in the kitchen and family room. The living room might as well be closed off, and the dining room is used only on those Thanksgivings and Christmases when you are not at your in-laws'. Bubble Diagrams After specifying the area, orientation and degree of privacy of each activity space, the next step is to see whether the spaces will fit together and whether you can indeed have all that you want. Don't be discouraged by the list you have created. You will at first think it impossible to "connect the dots," but it almost always works out. The key to success is mentally "hanging loose." Be general rather than specific about the details of the spaces. At this stage, you are groping toward a finished design much like a sculptor with a lump of clay. Like an artist beginning to draw a figure, use circles and ellipses placed so as to rough out the major features and masses of the body. Architects think of the circles and ellipses as bubbles, because bubbles have a dreamlike quality and conform to the shape of available space while retaining their basic volumes. Using bubbles instead of hard rectangles encourages you to ignore details such as cabinetry and doors. Such details will be dealt with at a later stage of developing your home design. To construct a bubble diagram (Illustration 1), purchase a sheet of 1/8-inch grid (1/8-inch = 1 foot) graph paper and a pad of tracing paper. Place a sheet of tracing paper over the graph paper. Using the underlying grid as a scale, mark the heights and widths of ellipses (including circles) representing the areas of each of your spaces. Ignore the actual area inside the ellipse; we are assuming the area of the bubble is its width times its height. Cut out and label each bubble with the name of the activity, its orientation and its degree of privacy. After you have cut out all of your bubbles, draw an arrow pointing true north on a clean sheet of paper or cardboard, so that you can orient your bubbles to the sun. The layout process is like a game. It is as difficult to describe rationally as the process of assembling a jigsaw puzzle. Your task is to find a configuration of bubbles (Illustration 2) satisfying each and every relationship in the table. Just as you would begin a jigsaw puzzle with the most obvious pieces, begin your layout with the largest bubble. Unlike a puzzle, however, feel free to alter a bubble's shape (make a new bubble), as long as the bubble has the same area (product of width times height). If playing with the shapes of the bubbles still doesn't yield a solution, consider allowing one or two minor discrepancies - such as letting an entrance foyer (degree of privacy = 1) abut a bathroom (degree of privacy = 3). If you continue playing after finishing the puzzle, you will often find that there are several more possible arrangements. Illustrations 2 and 3 are completely different bubble diagrams, each satisfying all of the criteria in Table 1. Both layouts focus on the dominant feature of the house, the patio or deck. They are nearly mirror images of each other. There are, no doubt, several more solutions to be found by rotating or inverting the basic building shape. Now let's up the ante. Let's add a couple of children, a whole range of further interests or activities and a second floor under the roof (pitch 12/12). Table 2 lists 20 separate activity spaces for this family of four. Illustration 4 (first floor) and Illustration 5 (second floor) represent one solution. Note that the second-story bubbles are inset about 4 feet (1/2 inch) due to the slope of the roof. If you compare the bubble diagrams with the activity-space analysis (Table 2), you will see that the design has one conflict: The adult-bathing space (the master bath) is on the north side of the house rather than the called-for east, west or south. In the next installment, we will further refine the plan, ending up with a detailed set of architectural drawings for the house. To practice your bubble design skills, we invite you to solve our master-bath problem. If you find a solution, and if we incorporate it into our final plan, we will give you a complete set of blueprints and list you as our design consultant.