Built to last…Are we designing homes for living or just “boxes”?

by David Wulff

The design of a home is probably one of the most difficult of all building types to design. Now, I know you are thinking – that a home design is easy. After all, we all live in one, so how difficult can it be?
When you think of it, though, a home design combines many more functions than, say an office building or a restaurant. The home must first provide shelter. After that basic function is satisfied, we need to provide for all the various activities that take place: cooking, eating, sleeping, cleaning clothes, relaxing, recreation, storing things (clothes, cars, etc.) and spaces for entertaining and receiving visitors. All these functions need a “space” for them to take place and each of these spaces require a different set of design criteria. To further complicate the matter, all the functions are not necessarily related. How do we combine all these requirements and still have a house that functions?
The conventional design wisdom tells us to just create “boxes” (rooms) for each of the different functions and put them next to each other and we have a house. The problem with this approach is that so often we do not end up with a layout that works. We just have a collection of boxes.
One of the things I enjoy as an architect is going to a friend’s home for an open house. As an architect, it is like taking a test drive of a new car. I get to experience the home in a “real life” situation as it was meant to be. Unfortunately, what usually happens is that we see the majority of the guests, where? In the kitchen, of course. Although the living room may be decorated “just so” and the dining room may have the food all laid out, the people just do not gather in those places. The reason is simple: we are just not that formal anymore. The problem is that most home designs do not take that simple fact into consideration. We are still stuck in the Victorian age where guests were ushered into a formal living room and meals were served in a formal dining room.
I remember visiting a mansion in Washington, GA some years ago. On the grounds were the three homes that the family had occupied over the years. The tour guide was the most excited about the first house, a one room cabin. He felt it exemplified the essence of life for that family. In that cabin the family slept, cooked, ate, visited and basically carried out all their daily functions in that one room.
The second home they built contained a separate living room, kitchen and upstairs there were two sleeping areas. As you can imagine, the daily functions were becoming separated.
The third home was what we normally consider a “mansion”. It had a large front porch with tall columns. Inside there were separate living rooms, parlor, bedrooms, kitchen and formal dining room. Clearly this was the Victorian epitome of society. Home design has not changed much since then. Sure, in the 50’s we added a couple more spaces, like the recreation room or family room, but basically the overall design of homes has been just a collection of “boxes”.
Now, think back to that one room cabin I mentioned above. All the daily functions took place in that one room. Of course, the most important of those functions was centered on the preparation of food and if guests were present, that one room is where they gathered. When you think of it, it’s not so much different than today. Guests still gather where the food is prepared. So why then do we still design separate “boxes” for our homes? Let’s think out of the box. The home should be an expression of the way we live.
One way to begin is to make a list of the rooms in your house and the amount of square footage of each room. Now list what you actually do in those rooms and how often you use them. With this list, reorganize it into the order of the rooms you use most. The result may surprise you. In terms of how we live, the rooms we use most should be the rooms with the largest square footage. If this is not the case, then we need to re-think the use of the rooms. Perhaps the activities can be rearranged or perhaps the spaces can be changed with some minor remodeling. One of the reasons we have homes that are too large is that we are lost in the thought that each activity needs a separate room. Perhaps some of the activities can be combined into separate areas of a larger room. We can redesign or reorganize the rooms to create spaces for separate activities. Do we really need a home office, or can we put the computer in a nook of the family room? Do we need a separate game room, or can we combine that with the dining area?
If we get away from the conventional thought of needing a separate formal living room, dining room, kitchen and family room, we will discover that we can create a design core much like the one room cabin, where the kitchen, living and dining functions are all open to each other and may be shared by the entire family as well as guests. One benefit is that the family may actually spend more time together, even though they may be involved in separate activities.
The added benefit: the guests will not all be squeezed into the kitchen when they visit.
DAVID H. WULFF, AIA, is a retired architect living in Lake Lure

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