From the Architect's Desk
On 14, Feb 2018 | In From the Architect's Desk | By lthomas
It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been writing these essays for several years now. When I look back over the archive, I realize that I consistently return to a singular topic that could be boiled down to one question: What makes a good house?
This can feel like one of the huge questions, like “What is the meaning of life?” Maybe that’s why I so often rant about what makes this house good or that addition bad! I’ve written about the beauty of resurrecting the oft-humdrum rancher and of the perils and the craft of creating successful additions. Ditto how to build a large home that’s tasteful and how to live large in a small space. Through years of experience — of making mistakes and learning, of creating incredible design solutions for small additions and sketching dream homes from scratch — I believe I have crafted a calculation for what it takes to make A Good House.
So here it is. My essential glossary of good design culled from years of experience:
History: I work a lot in historic areas. That doesn’t mean the houses are always in perfect shape when the owner comes to me to, say, update the ancient galley kitchen or create a much-needed family room, spaces old homes often don’t have. But these homes have other factors that are important – perhaps they were owned by a significant figure or are in a historically important area. A home that has real history (and the charm and details that come with it) can be irreplaceable.
Structure: Particularly important when looking at a renovation or addition. Are the structural bearing walls and trusses workable into an updated layout? Is there a basement or crawl space? A Good House has a fundamentally strong structure.
Siting: I refer to this over and over again because it matters. A Good House sits low in its landscape when it needs to so as not to be ostentatious or takes advantage of its position on a promontory by standing out. It is oriented to the sun and breeze, in alignment with the major spaces and functions, and encompasses views. A Good House has a sensible and beautiful relationship with its exterior vistas and spaces.
Proportion: In the discussion over the value and nature of residential architecture, the conversation usually focuses too much on square footage. Bigger isn’t always better; small isn’t always successful. A Good House is one where the size fits the lifestyle of its inhabitants, where balance is more important than symmetry and proportion and quality trump size every time.
Materials: Thick walls, a hipped-metal roof, cedar shake shingles… A Good House is made with the best materials. A 1950s rancher can be salvaged if it is made with real stone, which so many new homes are not. Can’t afford a brick house? Then how about a brick foundation where the brick turns the home’s corner? A Good House is made with the best the budget will allow applied without cheap design shortcuts.
Integrity: A Good House transcends trend. It can be extremely contemporary or strictly traditional, but proportion and balance are always in style. Homes should have vistas, natural light and well-placed mechanical; there should be evidence that someone followed a thoughtful plan – let’s not have the powder room open into the dining room, for example, or stick on three different roof forms just because you can — and yet the house should never look contrived. Perhaps it is in creating the integrity of a structure that the creative hand of the architect is most valuable.
I wrote once about my sense of vision, that quality the architect brings to the Good House equation that’s hard to put into words. In a renovation or addition, I try to look at an original home and respect its massing and design, to create something that is harmonious but not simple mimicry. In designing a new home, I consider the site, the lifestyle of the owners, the location, the balance between budget and beauty, common sense and creativity. The work of vision takes time and imagination.
Sometimes it takes a lot of quiet and careful evaluation to uncover whether a home is “good” or “bad,” but A Good House will always make its presence known.