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

A Refined Floor Plan

In the previous installment, we documented the needs of a family of four through an activity analysis. The analysis resulted in a list of the family's activities that required space, approximate size of each space in square feet, preferred orientation of the space (activity) relative to the position of the sun at the time of the activity, and degree of privacy appropriate to the activity. We then cut out oval bubbles proportional in size to the area of each activity space. With these bubbles we played a game to see if we could arrange the bubbles so that each had the desired orientation, and that no public bubble (least degree of privacy) lay next to any private bubble (highest degree). The resulting bubble diagram is the crudest form of plan, but don't let its simple nature fool you. It is the embryo from which the finished house plan will evolve. It will - if adhered to - result in a floor plan reflecting and aiding the lives of the occupants. In this installment, we will refine the bubble diagram into an actual floor plan. This will involve two further steps: 1) turning the oval bubbles into rectangles satisfying all critical dimensions, and 2) incorporating as many architectural patterns as possible. You will probably find yourself working on both at the same time. They are, however, conceptually different, so let's consider them one at a time. Critical Dimensions Building materials, appliances, and many furnishings come in standard dimensions. To deviate from these dimensions may make your house unique, but it may also make you poor. In addition, experience and building codes dictate minimum clearances for areas where people work and walk. The table on page 56 lists the most useful of these dimensions. When applying these dimensions to your plan, don't indulge in wishful thinking. If something doesn't fit on paper, don't wish the problem away by imagining that it will fit in the real house. If you are prone to wishful thinking, have someone who is not check your critical dimensions. Architectural Patterns Whether early humans shared our thoughts and feelings about shelter, we will never know, but there is evidence that people built log structures 10,000 years ago, and they probably leaned trees together over their heads long before that. Through the ages and across otherwise dissimilar cultures, certain patterns in building are found over and over. They occur too often to be coincidental. It is as if the knowledge of these patterns were genetically encoded. At the very least, these patterns have been found to work - to please - and are therefore passed down from generation to generation. With increasing industrialization of housing, the push toward lower construction costs constantly threatens these patterns. But the patterns should not be ignored; they are, quite simply, what make good houses work. I cannot urge you too strongly to incorporate as many of them as possible into your design. The 35 patterns described here come from A Pattern Language, by Alexander, et. al., arguably the best book ever written on architecture. For a more complete understanding of these and 218 additional patterns, as well as their interrelationships, I urge you to purchase and read the original text. Outdoors Trees can define outdoor space. Over a house or patio, they create a roof. In a square pattern, they mark the corners of an outdoor room; a pair serves as a gateway; rows turn a driveway into a gallery. Even standing alone, a single tree can provide a focal point for a swing or a bench. A contractor's first impulse is to level every tree within 100 feet of your building site. This is understandable, since he needs room to maneuver heavy machinery and store materials. But the trees already growing on your site are a priceless asset. Ponder this: trees typically require 40 to 50 years to mature; how old will you be when the trees you have to replace finally mature? If this doesn't stop you, price a 12-foot tree at your local nursery. Natural Garden Plant trees, bushes, flowers, ground covers, and grasses in the way they are found in nature. Form boundaries with natural materials, such as logs and stones. It is a human compulsion to organize our surroundings, but when we plant in perfect rows and rectangles and clip the grass to putting-green height, we lose the natural aspect of nature. The English garden provides a pleasing transition between nature growing wild and our built environment. Vegetable Garden Every home with soil should have a vegetable garden. One-tenth of an acre of good soil, well tended, is sufficient to provide a year's worth of food for a family of four. But the benefits of gardening go beyond nutrition. Presidents of corporations do it, heads of state do it, mental patients do it: There is simply nothing more grounding to body and soul than digging in the soil. South-Facing Outdoor Space Except on hot days, given a choice, people prefer to sit in the sun. Therefore, in designing your house and its adjacent outdoor spaces, be sure to create a livable outdoor space, such as a patio or deck, on the south side of the house. This important space should be as easily accessed as any other space in the house. Sunny Place This is a subpattern of the south-facing outdoor space. In any south-facing outside space there is a best spot, a sunniest corner against the building, a nook that is always protected from the wind. With full sunlight but no wind, such a spot will feel 20° to 30° warmer than the air temperature. Make your sunny place attractive and usable. Provide a table and, if you'd like company, two chairs. It will shorten your winter. Positive Outdoor Space Positive space is space with boundaries; negative space is generally what is left over and provides no sense of enclosure. People generally feel comfortable and secure in clearly outlined positive spaces, but insecure in undefined negative ones. The sheltering feeling of a house derives primarily from our feeling enclosed. In stark contrast is the negative emptiness of the spaces around typical rectangular-tract houses. This needn't be; ells, bays and sheds, as well as fences, shrubs, and trees should all be used to create positive, and therefore useful, outside spaces. Outdoor Room We've all had fantasies of living in grass huts in the South Seas; large numbers of people well beyond adolescence still go camping. We have an urge to be outdoors and indoors at the same time. Many older homes have screened-in porches or trellis-covered patios. These spaces serve as well-defined outdoor rooms, spaces where the wind and the birds can be heard and the flowers smelled, yet where we act as if indoors. Entrance Location How often have you been confused in approaching a strange house for the first time? There is the predictable formal entrance in the exact middle of the main building, but there is also the side door off the driveway, the door obviously used by the occupants. Which door are you expected to use? Two keys to a successful entrance are: 1) the door you are expected to use must be obvious upon approaching the house, 2) the location of that door should place the visitor in an appropriate interior space of the house - not, for example, in the dining room or the bedroom. Techniques for steering guests to the correct door include proximity to the spot where they will park and a well-marked pathway. Transition When outside the home, our adrenaline is up; we are in a guarded state because the world is a dangerous place. Inside our castle we can relax. To aid this psychological transition, provide an entrance transition. You don't need a moat and drawbridge, but crunching up your gravel driveway, opening and passing through the front gate, walking under a grape arbor can all aid in the passage. Space The nexus between home and outdoors is too often neglected. The space for the activity of entering the home should recognize these needs: 1) a window through which you can see who is at the door; 2) shelter from wind and rain for the visitor; 3) an outside shelf or bench on which to rest packages while groping for your keys; 4) space in which to gyrate while putting on your coat; 5) a bench on which to sit while donning or doffing boots; 6) storage space for boots, coats and hats; 7) a clearly delineated departure point so that you don't have to follow your guests to their car in a protracted and awkward goodbye; and 8) a temporary holding space from which to deny unwelcome solicitors access to the intimacy of your hearth. Windows Zen View Preserve the impact of a special view by treating it as special. Rather than incessantly gaping at a beautiful view through a wall of windows, reserve it for special times. I had a little house on an ocean cove. I built it in such a position that the cove could be seen only from my sleeping loft and from the path to the mailbox. Waking in the morning, retiring at night and getting the mail were transformed into special events that measured my day. Window Place Two things we desire when indoors are information from the outside world and light. A window with a seat satisfies both of these desires. The window place can be as simple as a comfortable chair next to a window with a low sill. More elaborate and attractive are built-in window seats and window alcoves. Low Window Sills A primary function of windows is to provide contact with the outside. Modern practice is to place the sill above the height of furniture (about 30 inches) so that tables and chairs can be placed anywhere along a wall. As a result, you cannot see the ground around your house when seated. (Don't you get the urge to stand up when you hear a noise outside?) A sill height of between 12 and 14 inches allows contact with the ground, yet distinguishes the window from a door. For a sense of security, a sill height of 18 inches is recommended for second-story and higher windows. Windows with Small Panes Nothing is less aptly named than the picture window. The gift of artists is their ability to extract pictures from the everyday. Large expanses of glass don't help us frame pictures; they take in the whole outdoors. Each pane of a multipaned window, however, frames a simple picture. What's more, each little picture is different when viewed from different points in a room. Windows on Two Sides Given a choice between a room with windows on just one side or a room with windows on two or more sides, people will always pick the latter. Nothing need be said about a room without windows. Windows on only one side lack cross ventilation, leave remote areas of a room dark and unpleasant, cause glare (too high-contrast) between the window and the wall, and hinder communication by only partially illuminating the face and its expressions. If you have any doubt about this pattern, think about your favorite rooms; I'm sure they all have windows on two or more sides. Dormers and Skylights A room with sloping ceilings needs windows built into the ceiling to satisfy the requirements for contact with the outside and natural daylighting. High windows provide excellent lighting but no contact with the ground. Low windows provide contact but poor lighting. The compromise is either a vertical window built out from the roof (dormer window) or a roof window (tall skylight whose bottom edge is below eye height). Structure Defined Space Compare the intimacy of a restaurant having several small rooms to that of a large restaurant with spaces delineated only by booths and short partitions. Space is not well defined when formed by flimsy, nonstructural partitions. Occupants of timber-framed homes find that the structure's heavy posts and beams naturally delineate spaces. Sheltering Roof A strongly sloping roof is symbolic of shelter. Ask a young child to draw a picture of home, and he or she will nearly always draw a house with a pitched roof and chimney - even if they live in an apartment. Part of the appeal of timber-framed structures is that we can see what's holding up the roof. Varied Ceiling Height The height of a ceiling has a powerful effect on the intimacy of a space. In general, the lower the ceiling, the more intimate the space. A public room could have a height of 9 or even 10 feet, but spaces for intimate dining, conversation and sleeping benefit from ceilings as low as 7 feet (the code minimum in most areas). Achieving different ceiling heights is simple when the building consists of more than one module. Other useful constructs are cathedral ceilings, lofts and changing floor levels. Sitting Sitting Circle When free to choose, people relating as a group will arrange themselves in a circle. A circle attracts people, especially if it touches the main traffic paths through the house. The circle should be tangential to the traffic, however, and not cut by it. Arrange a variety of chairs, a couch and cushions loosely in the circle so that people have a choice of comfortable spots. Fire The ancient Greeks believed the universe to consist of just four elements: earth, air, fire and water. Fire is life. When the fire in your body goes out, you're dead; when the fire in the home goes out, the home seems cold and dead. From thousands and thousands of years ago until just 100 years ago, our ancestors tended fires to keep warm. It's in our genes; nothing focuses a sitting circle better than the warmth of an open fire or radiant stove. In most American homes, the media room has unfortunately replaced the hearth, a poor substitute, in my mind. Alcoves A simple rectangular room cannot serve a number of people well all of the time. There are times when all want to be together, but other times when one wishes to read or do homework while others wish to talk with one another. A single room can allow both activities if it contains alcoves - smaller spaces within the larger space. An alcove may be as simple as a small circle of chairs in a corner or as complicated as a small, three-sided room off the main room. In any case, provide several distinct sitting areas in any room commonly shared by all. Kitchen Layout I've yet to hear anyone complain about a kitchen being too large or having too many counters. Every kitchen consists of four major work areas: refrigerator, stove, sink and preparation counter. Efficient kitchen design consists of: 1) no two work centers separated by more than 10 feet, 2) appropriate storage and tools at each center, and 3) a total of at least 12 feet of uncluttered counter space. Farmhouse Style Any kitchen containing a table and chairs will soon become the social center of the house. The importance of eating together is recognized in many religious ceremonies. No less important are the joy of cooking together and the anticipation created by the sounds and smells of food in preparation. Provide space in your kitchen for several people to work together, a table and chairs for eating, and one or more rocking chairs for those who simply want to be where the action is. Open Shelves What's the deal with kitchen cabinets? I hate them because I can never find what I'm looking for. The pot I want is always under three other pots at the back of the last cabinet I look in, and it always turns out, after a special trip to the supermarket, that I did have a can of tuna fish. What's missing is our grandmother's pantry where the pots hang on walls, the dishes are in plain sight and food is not hidden behind doors. If you insist on doors for all of your cabinets, then at least provide an open-shelved pantry nearby. Privacy A Room of One's Own Intimacy is difficult to sustain without occasional privacy. Lack of privacy will result in the erection of psychological barriers. Establishing a healthy self requires, if not an entire room, at least a corner that is yours alone, where whatever you leave unfinished will not be touched. This need applies to children as well as adults. Couples require similar private space. Nothing will destroy the intimate bond of a couple quicker than the inability to get away from the children. Dressing Space Dressing, undressing and leaving clothes around are disruptive unless space is provided for them. Provide a dressing and clothes-storage space between the bedroom and bath. It can be part of either the bedroom or the bath, but it should be at least 6 feet in both dimensions with 6 feet of hanger space, 6 feet of open shelf, several drawers and a full-length mirror. Work Work Space Work in progress requires a separate space so as not to disrupt the household and to provide an environment for concentration. If the work involves mostly paperwork, a minimum floor space of 48 square feet should be provided. The space should be enclosed on two or three sides and should open out onto a larger space. The person working will be most comfortable with his or her back to a wall and looking into the larger space or out of a window. Working at Home Retirement is a modern and unnatural concept, often leading to boredom, lack of direction and physical decline. The activity the worker is retired from may, in fact, be his or her main reason for living. Moreover, the skills of the person being retired may be at their peak. You can avoid this personal crisis by working at your own business in your own home. With personal computers, fax machines and the Internet, the number of jobs you can perform at home is increasing. The goal is meaningful work that is inseparable from your daily existence, that you can do at our own pace, and that can never be taken from you by the company. When you choose your own work, it ceases to be work; it is simply part of your life. Therefore, include a large space for a home office or workshop, including provisions for dealing with customers, if required. Circulation Minimize Hallways A hallway serves the single purpose of getting you from one space to another. It is, therefore, a design failure. If hallways comprise 10 percent of your home, then your usable living space costs 10 percent more than it should. An entrance hall or foyer performs the important entrance function and thus escapes the penalty. Doors in Corners The locations of doors dictate the traffic pattern through your home. Placing a single door in a corner or a pair of doors in adjacent corners frees the remainder of the room for activities and results in the most efficient use of space. The single exception is a room containing more than one activity space, in which case the door should enter between the spaces. Staircases Owner-designers rarely allow enough space for stairways. Stairs between floors require a volume of two stories and an area on each floor of about 40 square feet. They needn't be considered wasted space, however. Properly placed, a stairway open to a living space can provide an ascending string of sitting places and a stage for the theatrically inclined. The next time you're at a party, watch what happens on an open staircase. Storage Dry Storage Don't forget the need to store things that are not being used temporarily. Few articles require heat; more often they just need to be kept dry. Unconditioned space costs half as much as conditioned; attics and barns are drier than basements. Provide dry, unconditioned storage space equal to at least 15 percent of your conditioned space. Closets Don't let closets be afterthoughts. Each occupant needs at least four feet, preferably eight, in their own space. Don't locate them on outside walls for thermal insulation. With exterior walls already thermally insulated, closets are more valuable between rooms, where they provide acoustic insulation and form thick-walled transitions into private spaces. The Design The more you participate in the design of your house, the more it will seem like your home. On the other hand, it is true that most of what we know we learn through mistakes. Your home, perhaps the only one you will ever build, is too important to be treated as a learning experience. For this reason I have always turned to one of my professional friends - in this case, Tom Young of Rockport, Maine - for the finishing touches. As Tom says, "It's all in the inches, not the feet."