After reading Bob Borson’s first lesson in Residential Architecture, I laughed a bit, lamented a bit, then started pondering how many violations of basic material termination there were lurking in my own backyard. (You should follow along with his Residential Architecture 101 course. I’m calling it a course because it makes me feel more scholarly.)
My husband and I regularly take walks around our neighborhood, which - thanks to Houston’s lack of zoning - is an eclectic hodgepodge of various sizes and styles of homes. We have multi-family apartments crammed on 50’x100’ lots sitting directly next to a Spanish-styled McMansion, which is just across the street from a 1920’s bungalow that sits in the shadow of 3-story contemporary town homes. Given the lack of any standards, you can imagine the chaos that we call ‘design’.
I decided to document a few cases around us to contribute to Bob’s collection of…um…learning material. Let’s take a look at an example of good and bad contemporary design. They happen to be directly across the street from one another:
Observations: Clean lines, clear volumes and geometry, interesting way to shield an entry from the street (its behind the tall wall on the far right), private exterior courtyard, multiple materials used in appropriate ways, fenestrations that align and seem to be proportional to the spaces (I’ve never been inside, so I can’t speak to the interior arrangement). Overall, this is a successfully done exterior, and I can only assume it would be well done on the inside, too.
Let’s contrast that with the neighbor across the street:
All I can say is, what HAPPENED?! As you squint and readjust your monitor trying to make sense of what on earth this image IS, I’ll fill you in on the not-so-secret details. This is what you call a poor interpretation of all things modern. Sure, you could argue that they based their rationale on a modern principle like ‘less is more’ or ‘ornamentation is stupid and so are indications of material changes’ (I made that one up). But really? REALLY?! My husband likened it to camouflage. Unfortunately, no one is hiding. It looks as though someone designed a nice volumetric house (how’s that for architect-speak?), then had their child come in and add some ‘material stickers’ to it. Yay squares!
Here is an up close shot of how the material meets the corner:
I’m baffled. I really have no words.
That being the case, I’ll introduce you to a different sort of house only a block away from these two. I stumbled upon the following group of post-modern town homes and had to do a double take. My immediate reaction was “Mother’s House!”:
The town homes seem normal at first glance, but there is a deep richness of post modern influences. I won’t go quoting the entire wikipedia article on what post modernism is, but this design is deliberate and smart. You may not particularly enjoy the aesthetic, but you have to admit there is merit in the design. It makes me giddy every time I see it; not because I love the way it looks, but rather that someone out there really tried (and nailed it) and I actually “get it”. What’s to ‘get’, you ask?
Take the front facade, for example:
The irony of it all makes me giggle every time. The facade is both facade and mockery of facade. The separation between the main house and the thin, detached facade piece speaks to the context of the neighborhood (lots of imposing 3-story town homes with regurgitations of classic facade designs), while inventing a new way of viewing something familiar. It speaks to a classic component while questioning the purpose; a true expression of “wit, ornament and reference”, as well as function and symbolism. It is designed as a stylistic and contextual reference that helps it blend well in the neighborhood while standing out as different at the same time. Do you “get it” too?
Perhaps you’re not on board with my comparison to Robert Venturi’s design or the whole post modern reference, but take a look at the painstaking detail the designer went to on ensuring the downspout was interesting:
You can’t tell me there wasn’t a clear intent and vision for this set of homes. Love it or hate it, you have to appreciate dedication.
Whatever you design, be purposeful.
I knew I shouldn’t have made french toast this morning. Too much sugar will make my eye twitch and my mind race; inevitably, I have to let out that sugar rush some how. Today’s sugar rush release came in the form of obsession over proper entry design for a home.
As I blazed through a collection of images of a new ‘modern’ home community in Austin, TX, I noticed a lack of proper entrance design on a large number of plans. Now, you may be wondering “What makes an entry ‘properly designed’?”. That is a good question: one which I will attempt to answer…in the form of more questions. (You didn’t think you’d get a straightforward easy to follow prescriptive, did you?)
I’ll start with some theoretical musings that will hopefully stimulate your over-caffeinated brains and drive you to obsess over these little details as much as I have.
First, what is an entry? It is a space in which you transition from the exterior to the interior. It serves as an in-between space that sets the tone of the rest of the house. It is a place where you will greet guests and welcome them into your home. It is a place of high traffic (assuming your house doesn’t have a side-door-mistress that takes all the love away from your front door). It is a threshold.
Well, what is a threshold, exactly? The dictionary defines it in several ways: it is a piece of wood that frames the bottom of a door. Boring. It is an entry way or door. Duh? It is The place or point of beginning; the outset. Wait a minute…beginning. That means there is more to come. So perhaps the entry of a home serves as the foreword; the glimpse of something yet to come; the beginning of an experience. Also it is defined as The starting point of an experience, event, or venture. Well, that settles it. Your home’s entry is not just a bit of extra square footage to store that lonely hat rack (come on, admit it: you don’t actually wear hats). It isn’t just some interior room provided for the door swing. Rather, it is a unique space that will either build anticipation or completely let you down. Your home’s entry is your first impression.
Now let’s review some design criteria that should be considered as one designs a home. As with any building (residential or not), you must be aware of the surroundings; the site. How will you approach this building? Will you know where the entrance is located? Is the entrance brought to the attention of the user by means of a differentiating volume, color, texture, or some other means? How will a user engage the building? Will it be easy to understand how the user is to interact with the building? What should the user experience? What should they feel? What is the division of public space and private space? How will you move through the entry and into the rest of the building? What is the flow? Is there a large volume of traffic anticipated? What are the materials?…
I could go on and on. These questions are often summed up in singular ‘design terms’ such as “parti” and “approach”, or “balance” and “weight”. The real summation is that you have to think about every aspect of how this building will be experienced. Only then can you begin to answer the above questions and come up with a good design.
That’s all fine and good, but where did all the sugar rush energy go to? Mostly to scratching my head, a frequent eye twitch and increased heart and breathing rate. Let’s take a look at how some of these Austin designers handled their entrances (No designers or plan names are listed):
Where on earth do you actually enter this house? I can’t seem to figure out which end is the ‘front’. Do you approach a long windowless wall and stumble into a carport, only to ‘discover’ the uh…mistress…door? No, that doesn’t make much sense. How about approaching from the bottom to the right of the house…through a sliding door…no, that doesn’t make sense either. Okay, how about from the top of the plan? There is a porch there…hmm. But now, do I have any indication that I’m supposed to a) go through the carport again, b) choose the single door or c) opt for the sliding door immediately adjacent?
Maybe there will be a nice paved path that leads directly to one of these doors, and that will remove the mystery once it is built. However, that doesn’t solve all the problems:
What happens when you actually enter through these doors? Lets start in the carport. You wiggle past the parked cars and are immediately greeted with: a bathroom.
Welcome!!! Do you need to take a dump? No? Well, let’s hope the person before you didn’t either for the sake of your olfactory introduction to our home!
Okay, I hope that isn’t the main entry. Let’s look at the next door, the single one off the porch.
Welcome! *WHAM!* Oh, watch the wall! We just put it there to um…hold our keys…and hats…and hide the kitchen immediately behind it. Please, stumble immediately into our dining room!
Okay, so I’m a little more apt to believe this is the front door, and although you don’t enter directly into the kitchen, it doesn’t get much closer. The other two doors are unlikely candidates, but if they were the entry doors, well…you’d be abruptly met with a sofa or table. Not exactly a great first impression.
Let’s take a look at another design:
Again, I’m not sure which door is the designated ‘front door’, but in either case, you have an obstacle course that dumps you into a kitchen. Let’s face it: no one keeps an immaculate kitchen. What does this mean? Your guests will enter your home and be frozen in horror at the sight of remnants from last night’s ‘mac n cheese’ episode. Do yourself a favor: don’t design an entry that opens directly into a kitchen. It is almost as bad as entering next to a bathroom.
This one was so close to achieving a nice entry. There seems to be some sort of logical progression and structural order (as hinted at the long implied ‘hall’ from carport to patio). The disappointment comes in a few ways with this plan. First, the nice orderly implied ‘hall’ is terminated at an off-center door. Why not move the door to align with the first? Secondly, the front door empties users directly into the kitchen. By simply defining the space with structural elements, framed door ways or pulling the entry door back a bit, the spatial arrangement could stay the same and define the entry better. Another solution would be to create additional square footage for a separate entry way. It doesn’t have to be huge; maybe an extra 10 square feet.
This one almost has it. It has a nice roomy entry area, so guests don’t have to feel they’re waiting in line at the DMV as they attempt to leave the house.
The problem I have with this design is that there is no particular rhyme or reason to the ‘additional walls’ shown in the plan. I realize that modern and contemporary designs tends to buck symmetry and defined axes, but wouldn’t it make a better flow if there was a bit more order here?
Something as simple as framing out the spaces, aligning openings, and centering doorways could give this entry a much cleaner, deliberate feeling.
My last example is something that is very near to my heart. The dreaded ‘entry wall’. Let me just say that throwing a partition wall up directly in front of a door is a bad idea. Not only is it visually obtrusive, it is a mover’s worst nightmare. Why? Because sofas don’t bend. I know, I tried.
When you have a huge, wide open living space, why chop it up by adding a useless wall that doesn’t even align with the stairs? Does a wall make your entry more ‘entry-y’? I doubt it. Does it make people angry when they order a nice, long, comfortable couch but have to return it because it won’t fit past the ‘entry wall’? Yes. Yes it does.
In summary, be mindful of each choice you make when designing. Be especially mindful of how the space will be experienced, and how the first and last impression will be made as a user moves through the building.
Do you have any entry way horror stories to share?