Design A House

Recently a friend asked me to help him figure out the proper size for a family room addition he was designing for himself. He was looking for a rule of thumb that would guarantee a comfortable, "architecturally-correct" space - a short cut to a good design. He wanted access to the magic formulas that we apply in our practice. "C'mon," he said, "let me in on the secrets."

That got me thinking about how a blank sheet of paper ends up with a house design on it, and how we assure ourselves that what we've drawn turns out as we expect it to when it's built.

That's a scary prospect for a client - how are they ever sure that the representations they see on paper, on the computer screen, and in model form will really end up as their dream home?

Buying a car or an existing home is far less risky - you can test drive a car first and you can walk through an existing home. But it's quite a leap of faith to commit to the design and construction of a new home. You just don't know exactly what you've got until you've got it.

For those reasons I've great respect for the people who walk through our door. They're usually crossing into uncharted territory, are willing to turn over control of their dream to someone they barely know.

But what about those rules of thumb - the ones that we design professionals keep secret from the public? The truth is that although there aren't any hard-and-fast, black-and-white architectural edicts, there are a number of important concepts that help in determining the comfort and utility of most residential projects.

The first of these is research. And this is, perhaps, a bit of a secret. Before any meaningful design work can begin on any kind of architectural project, it is critical to have a thorough understanding of the problem. It starts with documenting the physical context - the site, existing structures on and near the site, the views, the climate, slope of the site, solar orientation, etc., because really good architecture responds to its environment. The project budget and schedule are likewise thrown into the mix.

The other part of the context is less tangible, the context of the client's dreams and desires. And although some clients bring to the table great volumes of information about what they want, most need some nudging to help express and articulate what's been bouncing around in their heads.

So Rule Of Thumb Number One is: Good research leads to good design. Profound? Not really, but certainly essential and often underutilized.

Rule Of Thumb Number Two: Start Slow. This can be an agonizing prospect for the client who's been thinking about their new home for months - planning, dreaming, collecting ideas, visiting other homes and generally gearing up to get started on the design.

But the potential danger is in arriving at a solution too soon. As a design begins appearing on paper, it becomes more "real" and, in the client's eyes, more difficult to change or even discard completely. A slow start means keeping the design "loose" and deferring any irrevocable decisions until a number of different possibilities have been explored.

Rule Of Thumb Number Three: Design From The Inside Out. This is a big one, and perhaps the most often abused. Good design fits the use, not the other way around. This can be something as small as making sure that a bedroom fits a king-size bed, or as large as deciding whether you really need a dining room, living room, and other "formal" spaces in the house. The intended use of space and particular manner in which the occupants will use it should be the primary consideration in the designing the shape and character of any house.

Whether you're working with a design professional, or trying your own hand, keep Rule Of Thumb Number Four in mind: Ask Questions Early and Often. Part of the Architect's job is to be sure that the design drawings adequately communicate the intent of the design to you, but you've got to let him know what you don't understand. There are a lot of design tools available to help make the design more "real" including computer models and physical models, and the more you make use of these, the more you'll understand the design and be able to predict what the "real thing" will be like.

So that's what I told my friend with the inquiring mind. He took a little more time to explore how his family would use the room, even moving his furniture out onto his back lawn to figure out how much space he really needed. The result was a somewhat smaller family room than he'd imagined, but one that was more useful. But still he wasn't sure he'd been allowed a big enough peek behind the curtain. "C'mon," he said, "let me in on the real secrets."

Richard L. Taylor, AIA is a published author and recognized expert in Residential Architecture. He is President of Richard Taylor Architects, a 5-person firm in Historic Dublin, Ohio.