The Language of Design

Language of Design


We’ll begin by considering a handful of words that are especially useful when the talk turns to buildings.

In the last chapter, the word symmetry seemed unavoidable. The Geor­gian House was strictly symmetrical; later, the Gothic Revival House was consis­tently asymmetrical. But let’s go back to basics.

The dictionary tells us that the word symmetry describes a “correspon­dence in size, form and the arrangement of parts on opposite sides of a line or plane.” In practice, that means that if you draw a horizontal line and then a verti­cal one that intersects the first at its center point, you will have a symmetrical fig­ure, with one side that balances the other. In the same way, if you begin with a rectangle and bisect it, it too is symmetrical. Let’s add some openings to a four- sided box—windows on either side of the central axis, perhaps a door at the cen­ter. All in a rush, a house begins to emerge. All we need to do is add a roof, and a couple of chimneys and we have a two-dimensional representation, an elevation they call it in drafting class, of a recognizable Georgian House (or the Classic Colonial, as this configuration can also be described). Needless to say, the place is symmetrical.

Again, we start with a line, but this time we consciously divide it into two asymmetrical (uneven) parts. We make it a box, add a couple of openings, then put on a gable end (centered on our perpendicular). After adding a few details, we have a Gothic Revival Cottage.

This talk of symmetry may seem to imply that houses exist only in two dimensions and that, by looking at an elevation drawing of a structure, we can understand it. In fact, thinking how the facade of a house appears on a piece of paper is helpful, but other angles of approach are essential, too.

Instead of a piece of paper, think about a small waxed cardboard milk or juice carton, the kind that holds a  ½ pint of liquid. It’s a three-dimensional object, mean­ing it has width, height, and depth. It takes up space, just as people, books, and bricks do. And, for that matter, just like buildings.

Unless you stand very far away and align yourself precisely with the center of a building (or a milk carton), you will see it as a three-dimensional object. From an angled view, represented here by an isometric sketch, a simple, shoebox shape is recognizable as a three-dimensional mass and, in short order, it becomes a house.

A one-and-a-half story house has a full ceiling on the first level and enough height on the upper floor that portions of it can be used as living space. Lower the pitch of the roof and you have a ranch house, a one-story home, in which living areas are found only on one level. The Cape Cod is a popular compromise because living quarters on the upper floor are to be had for virtually no additional expense over the cost of a one-story house. To some, however, the built-in limitations on ventilation, light, and head room make it less of a bargain than at first it seems. For them, per­haps the two-story house is the answer. In this configuration, the roof stands a story higher, atop a full second story.

Thus, the same footprint can accommodate houses of radically different mass. In order to have a ranch house with an equivalent amount of interior space to a two- story house, however, the ranch will need to have a footprint twice as large as the two-story house. That makes the ranch best suited to larger lots, while two-story homes are well adapted to in-town plots or small suburban settings.

On much the same footprint, one story, one and a half story, and two-story houses offer very different amounts of living space.

Thus far, we’ve talked about houses in the shape of a box. Some are taller or wider or deeper than others, but they’re basic boxes with four sides and a top and a bottom. In the past, consolidating the living space around a chimney and within such a regular form made good sense. But changing needs, advances in heating technology, and evolving tastes led to what architectural historians often call “break­ing the box.”

The devolution of the box took time. Early houses often had ells added off their rear elevations, resulting in T-shaped plans. As asymmetry became acceptable with the Greek and Gothic Revival Styles, wings appeared on the sides of new houses, resulting in L-shaped homes. In some instances two or more secondary structures were grafted on. Many houses had bay windows, towers, turrets, porches, or other elements that broke the planes of the box. When a number of different masses are combined (think about the way some great Victorian houses seem to ramble), the term massing is applied to describe the assemblage of the various three- dimensional elements.

For a moment, though, let’s return again to the box house. After all this talk T-shapes and L-shapes and the rest, you may be surprised to find what a dif­ference a simple change in roof design can make.

Certain roof shapes—the Mansard being the best example—telegraph the style of the house (a Mansard roof means the dwelling is a Second Empire House). Some roofs are tall in order to maximize the living areas beneath them (like the gambrel or the Mansard), while others are lower and enclose little more than storage space. Some are simple, others require complex carpentry full of compound angles. The roof of a house may seem like little more than necessary weather pro­tection, but it also communicates much about the design of a house.

The overall shape and mass of a house convey a great deal about the place. Consider the contrast between two different houses that date from the same era. A Foursquare has a boxy, two-story mass with a tall roof; the Prairie Style home is low- slung, consisting of only one story with a flattened roof and broad overhangs. While the Foursquare and the Prairie Style House share similar origins, one is essentially vertical, the other horizontal. One seems to have been wiped across the landscape, the other to have grown out of it. One sits atop the landscape, hunched as if to con­front the challenges of Mother Nature; the other rests more easily, going with the flow of the terrain. In the examples here, however, they contain the same amount of living space.

All right, let’s take a short break from talking about shapes and masses, sym­metrical or otherwise. Remember that the shape of every house—whether it resem­bles a single milk carton or a dozen cartons that collided—tells a story of whence it came. Understanding the geometry of your house, even in such broad strokes as these, can help you think about changing it.

You can visualize your house in geometric terms, considering its shapes, massing, and symmetry. These characteristics can be considered from afar but, as you get closer, finer distinctions become more important. Among them are scale, proportion, texture, and pattern.

I’m a man of average height. However, a couple of the members of my tele­vision crew are quite tall. I can go into a room of modest scale and feel right at home, but they have to duck their heads going through the door and then the ceiling seems to be encroaching on their headroom. It’s all a matter of scale, what’s in scale for a 5-foot-something person isn’t for someone who’s a foot taller.

Scale is about relative heights, widths, and sizes. In house design, windows and doors, room dimensions, furniture, and other elements are usually of recogniz­ably human scale. Buildings adjacent to one another on the same streetscape gen­erally look better if they have the same scale—were the Empire State Building adjacent to a picturesque Cape Cod House, the juxtaposition would be odd indeed. In contrast, a row of Victorian brownstones with neatly aligned cornices looks very much of a piece. Buildings don’t have to be the same size but they should relate to one another.

Scale and proportion work together. Proportion refers to the rela­tionship of elements to one another. Thus, a giant window that dominates the facade of a small house with other smaller windows looks disproportionately large. A gra­cious room with a vaulted ceiling 20 feet tall may look wonderful and feel very grand indeed. As an individual space, it may be very satisfying, but if it’s been shoe-homed into a small house, it may also be asking the question, Why am I here?

As you plan your remodeling project, consider how the various new elements relate to the old. Do they share the same scale? Are they in proportion to one another? Sometimes a surprising contrast in scale or proportion is very effective, but make sure you think it through. More often disproportionate elements that are out of scale just look as if somebody wasn’t really thinking.

When you look at any symmetrical house, the pattern of its basic ele­ments probably calls out to you. Most obvious are the openings, the windows and doors. Are they evenly spaced across the facade or is there a dot-dash-dot quality to their positioning? Notice whether the openings on the house are aligned. Or do they have a zigzag quality with some higher than others? The way the openings are set into the elevation gives it its own rhythm. Often subtle variations in spacing add visual appeal.

The siding also adds to the patterning of a house. Clapboards give a house a horizontal feeling; board-and-batten siding adds vertically. Shingles add shading, while brick has its own unique patterning.

Trim can add to the pattern, as in the case of houses where trim boards frame and accentuate the clapboarded areas. Trim around windows also adds emphasis, enlarging the wall area devoted to the windows, which can affect the proportion and rhythm. Mixing different patterns can be very effective (see The Stick Style House), adding texture and interest to the surface of a house. But different elements on the same house must be handled with great care.

A common strategy these days is to use shingles for an addition to a clap­board house as a kind of acknowledgment, an honest statement that yes, this sec­tion is indeed new. It can work very well. But in general using more patterns requires more design skill if you want to avoid a too-busy look.

Another consideration from outside your house is its rela­tionship to the sun. Unless you’re planning on moving your house, its solar orienta­tion isn’t going to change. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west and, depending upon the season, brightens certain rooms at certain times of day. But if you are planning an addition, its location can have an impact on existing spaces (cre­ating new openings or closing off old ones). And where you put the addition will also determine how much sunlight it gets. A kitchen/breakfast room addition is best located on the east side of the house to gather morning light, a new dining room probably belongs on the west side to take advantage of late afternoon and early evening light.

That’s a fancy word, volume. In an architectural context volume describes space, specifically interior space. While the exterior of a structure appears to be a solid mass, it actually encloses a three-dimensional space. Consider it another way, thinking back to our waxed cardboard carton. Empty the carton of its contents and the space that once held milk or juice inside is its volume.

When thinking about the volumes of the house, most of those words we talked about earlier come into play once again. You probably want a house that has good proportions, that is human in scale, and that has attractive patterns of materi­als.

But let’s begin with proportion.Proportion can be a slippery concept. Consider a square room. It would seem perfectly proportioned, with its identical length and width. Yet as living spaces, square rooms tend to be static while rectangular rooms seem to suggest movement. That’s probably because they’re more easily subdivided into different areas, encouraging flow. So matching dimensions don’t automatically make for good proportions.

Like facades, interior spaces and elevations can be symmetrical, with bal­anced windows and doors. Shapes have an important impact, too, though the shapes and masses within the volumes of the house tend to be movable elements like pieces furniture. Concerns like light and ventilation become much more important inside than out. But perhaps most important of all is the interior layout.

Earlier in this chapter, I made a point of recommending you remain true to your original floor plan. That’s because traditional plans often make a lot of sense. There’s a basic organizing philosophy that works for most traditional families, in which the home is divided into three main areas. These include the private areas of the house (the bedrooms and attendant bathrooms and dressing areas); the working zone of the house (the kitchen, a utility room, secondary entry area, etc.); and the relaxation spaces, perhaps a living room, dining room, and/or a family room.

As you think about your renovation, keep in mind the invisible lines of demar­cation between each area. That new dining room you’ve been pining for probably doesn’t belong immediately beneath the new bedroom for the baby—the two activ­ities are at odds with each other, as happy talk and laughter are great at the dinner table but not so wonderful when you want your child to drift gently off to dreamland.

Another consideration in thinking about your house is harder to quantify than more traditional design factors. But I think it’s important for a home to satisfy the normal human desire to entertain and be entertained. There’s no one way that the theatrical can be incorporated into a house, but domestic stagecraft can include color, contrast, decoration, and other elements.

One of the favorite dramatic devices of Frank Lloyd Wright was to shift ceiling heights. The visitor to many Wright houses is ushered into a low, dark hall. Moments later, upon moving to another space, the ceiling rises, often dramatically. Cove light­ing high on the wall, clerestory windows, vaulted ceilings, or other elements add to the drama. Wright was a master at using the tools of design to add excitement to the experience of a house.