Ideas on Residential Design


So, you’ve decided to hire an architect to help you in realizing your dream.  You are looking for an innovative and functional solution that reflects your values and personal choices. You want to be less wasteful of natural resources and get real value for your money. Perhaps you want a home large enough for extended family, but you believe that bigger is not necessarily better. You have decided that just any house in just any subdivision will not support your emotional wellbeing and that of your family.

Freed from the cookie cutters’ mentality of the typical subdivision, one can explore a more appropriate experience (giving form) to the human need for shelter with civility and to create a unique sense of place. (A farmhouse in Switzerland has a name, not a street address, because it is unique in the world). The realm of the metaphor, having been foregone for lack of artistic values, has been lost for the sake of a quick fix in every person’s search for the appropriate mortgage payment. The process of building a home, once respected and revered, is being eroded by expediency.

The cliches of residential developments’ quasi architecture abound in same­ness across many different geographical areas of this country. One is not sure if this is my street or one street over, at times. Repetition and a lack of identity have saturated postwar suburbia, with some notable exceptions of course.

Most people understand instinctively what they want in a home, but can at times be frustrated by the time and effort it takes to get there. Speak to anyone who has opted to commission a new house or addition, they will invariably tell you about the difficulties, but then followed by expressing their sense of accomplishment and joy for having done it. Following is a look at some common issues that you will discuss with your architect.

Siting and Orientation:

The orientation of a house (set amidst natural surroundings) should first and foremost be sympathetic to the location of the sun, prevailing wind directions, a particular hillside, stand of trees, or a nearby body of water that might lend itself to the melding of a home and nature. In an urban setting, the choices are different but nonetheless part of what allows a design to succeed. Orientation allows us to parallel the activities within the house with the movements of the sun. Proper daylighting is a powerful booster to the human psyche. Melatonin levels in the brain are said to be influenced by exposure to light and thus affect our cycle of alertness and drowsiness. An easterly exposure for the bedrooms might be a priority. Rooms used throughout the day should be on the sunny side, or at least afford plenty of daylight. The microclimate can be turned into an ally, providing shelter from winter winds, shade in the summer and vistas to lift the spirit.

Exterior Massing and Style:

A horizontal line is more beautiful than a vertical line, because it recalls the calming effect of the horizon. Thus a house design based on horizontal themes might be well suited for an open site with relatively flat terrain. For a house among trees or hilly terrain, vertical lines can be introduced to allow for better integration, especially with tall trees. One should be able to “read” the distinct ele­ments within the whole that is greater than the sum of its’ parts, i.e., internal functions are expressed on the exterior without compromising the overall com­position. A house need not look boxy but can be “organic” in form, well proportioned according to the golden section. A house can have “arms and legs” representing smaller adjunct structures, perhaps housing an older child or an elder parent deserving a separate identity. Sepa­rate, yet connected through the appropriate use of elements in a designer’s bag of tricks. Style is subjective and personal. Whether the client has a particular style in mind, or the designer is given a free hand, it is the underlying geometry that ultimately informs a successful composition.

Room Layout and Proportion:

Fewer stairs are better. Tall ceilings, hugging the underside of roof forms, are used for large and long spaces. Lower ceilings are used for smaller and more intimate spaces. Some rooms want to be more introverted, others more extroverted. Rooms progress, from the most public to the most private, in a hierarchy starting at the Foyer. A Foyer that is located where it will actually be used everyday. The most formal space in the house, it can be made an efficient tran­sition point. A Foyer can also be used to showcase fine materials, artwork and a sense of having arrived. The more public spaces of the house could be imme­diately apparent from the Foyer or one could be led on a journey of discovery through a narrow passageway (lined with bookshelves) into the Main Social Space and beyond. The difference between an open plan and a more traditional layout is connectivity, flow and flexibility vs. separation of different Themes and activities. A room can be defined by varying ceiling heights or by adding sof­fits, without even a hint of a wall. Living, Dining, Family, rooms can be divided by the ever popular translucent or opaque glass block, also available in color now. The kitchen is the hardest working room in the house, with a com­pliment of equipment and a layout anticipating every need with efficiency and flow. The Bedrooms are remote yet connected to the more public spaces. The Master Suite being separate from the other Bedrooms both physically and acoustically. Personal privacy strengthens the bond between family members by not making people feel confined, but by allowing them to be “public” or “private” as a matter of choice.

The Delight of Thermal Comfort:

  1. A typical spec house today receives a combined forced hot air heating and cooling system. This option represents a lower up front cost, but can cause discomfort, especially during the heating season and for allergy sufferers.
  2. A separate ducted cooling system with radiation type heating (finned tubes in metal enclosure or integral European style thin wall radiators). Most people prefer radiant heating over forced hot air.
  3. The system of choice for the ultimate in thermal comfort is an in-floor radi­ant heating system combined with a high velocity (small duct) cooling sys­tem. The initial installation cost of this system is higher, but accounting for the solar (winter) gain at south facing glazing and the lower ambient air tempera­ture (winter) that a “warm” floor affords, energy consumption is lower over options 1. or 2. State of the art “smart house” electronic controls monitor air temperatures and are used as an energy management system.
  4. A fireplace in the “Main Social Space” can be designed to provide both warmth and ambiance without drawing warm indoor air up the chimney, by use of a separate outside air intake system and moveable ceramic glass apron. Locating the main thermal mass of the chimney within the house will allow for more of the heat to be captured.
  5. A passive solar system can complement the in-floor heating system by heating the floor slabs of south facing rooms, by direct solar gain. The in-floor heating tubes then “carry~~ the gain to other rooms, similar to the cardiovascu­lar system in mammals. The synthesis of passive solar and radiant heating. Glazing can be equipped with decorative insulating (motorized) shades to be lowered in the evenings, both for privacy and to reduce heat loss during the heating season. Masonry walls can moderate temperature fluctuations in the house during a hot summer’s day and thus reduce cooling energy costs.

A Car Port:

Should cars be driven into the side of a house or is there a need for transition between people space and the realm of the car. A balancing act between conve­nience and a degree of separation. Undeniably people tend to lug a lot of stuff between car and house. A Car Port is an opportunity to do something whimsi­cal, that looks as though it could be exchanged at a moment’s notice for next year’s model. Perhaps a breezeway connecting the Car Port and the main house, also doubling as a mudroom for those outdoor garden days.

A Swimming Pool:

Swimming is known as one of the best forms of exercise, as it conditions most of the major muscle groups. A swimming pool can also be a center for family fun, mostly during the summer months, unless of course one invests in an indoor aquatic activities center with connectivity to the outdoors during the summer. As simple as a 4 person therapeutic spa or perhaps a narrow single lane lap pool or more. Pool Water can be sanitized by using environmentally sound systems that are also easier on bather. A pool need not be a chore when it is self-cleaning by use of water jets that gently sweep sediment toward the main drain and back to the filter A designer can have a lot of kin with shapes, levels, tile patterns and colored limestone plaster. The “smart pool” is controlled by a programma­ble microprocessor to manage the system for energy efficiency, adjust cleaning and heating cycles and even control the under water lighting system.

A Garden:

Whether it be a vegetable patch, english garden or a french concoction as the one made famous by Monet a garden is a perennial favorite with people that choose to live in the country. (A great many 19th century writers have drawn comparisons between life in the city and life in the country. This great theme has diminished along with the advent of suburbia and the commuter) A garden is a place where one can show his or her convictions, siding with the pastoral. Some people find gardening therapeutic, others just a lot of hard work. A gar­den can be defined by hard edges of masonry or soft edges ever changing with the seasons, If hard edges are the answer, then a more formal approach toward connecting a garden to the house can be achieved. Softer edges may meld with natural surroundings.