The Relationship of Spaces

When I sit down to design, the most important thing in my mind is what the actual spaces will look and feel like as well as how they are intended to be used.  Big deal, right?  Everyone thinks about that, right?  Yes, and no.   Not only does each space need to be considered, but the way the spaces relate to each other and the synergistic gains that can be created will add to the basic design of a space.  Any designer can lay out the boxes in multiple fashions.  But it takes an architect to create the composition of the spaces that fits the needs of a project.  The three diagrams below will help me to explain.

In the first, a simple rectangular space.  A room like any other.  It has size, space and a presence that can be used by anyone for a function of their choice.  All builders can put this up and do a fine job of it. 



If more space is needed, there is a new room built.  It is a nice room.  And, like the original, it has all of the elements of the built space.  And the additional cost. 



But the image below is where architecture is made.  The two rooms have created a space between that serves multiple uses.  It may have its own use, it may just serve as an entry into the one room, but if so, it also serves in relationship to the second room. 



The example above is a generic way of showing the architectural process of space creation.  The two 'rooms' above may be 4 walled rooms in a house with a shared living room and hall.  Or they may be two skyscrapers with a plaza below.  But how they relate to each other, and to the space between is critical to understand how a place becomes 'A Place.'

Thought must be given to the way each of these spaces are entered, left and relate to each other.  Does the ceiling height match that feel, accentuate it or get in the way of the natural hierarchy and flow?  Are the windows placed to focus on the other room, the space between or neither? 

As you can see, any designer can create a box or a series of boxes and put them together.  It takes an architect to consider how they relate to each other.  The decisions are endless, as are the considerations, but that is what makes a project unique. 

Who is your house for?

Today was an interesting day.  We took a couple of hours off from working and went to an open house being put on by a local home magazine.  It was in our neighborhood and we figured it would be fun to snoop!

While the usual industry standard fare of nametag staring and glad handing happened, we were also treated to the architect saying a few words about this rather run of the mill house (that WAS sited well on a beautiful lot).

He began with the usual jargon of space and scale, which was hit and miss in the rooms open in the rooms we could look into.  Then he ventured into the why of the home.  The 'context of the neighborhood' and how this cape cod mansion had to somehow fit into the neighborhood.  Note that this 'neighborhood' was a McMansion developer's special complete with 6,000 sf colonials and overly pitched roofs that seemed to reach to the sky above.  He waxed on about the need to respect the neighbors and help to create the 'fabric'.  Ugh.  I felt like I was back in studio.  No wonder people hate architects.  His final nail was when he said that some people 'get this,' and then others 'need to be taught and brought around to this'.  I felt like raising my right arm at a 45 degree angle and saluting the Fuhrer.

Unfortunately, this attitude extends far beyond the pencil of the designer.  Many towns have 'design standards' that dictate what can and cannot be built in a neighborhood.  This color paint, this style of house, this many windows.  Design by copy and paste!  This is backed up by the pseudo-intellectuals who support this town fascism in the interest of keeping 'those people' out.  Yet, in my area, they are also the open border idiots who believe that any one can do anything they want freely anywhere, except in their neighborhood.  Ugh, make up your mind!!!! 

According to the logic of this architect, everyone is interchangeable and fits nicely in a neo-colonial or neo-cape, it is just the square footage that matters and separates the haves from the have nots.  Hogwash!

We are all different.  This fact bugs me sometimes when I am trying to navigate traffic or a trip into a large city, but it shows up everywhere and is real.  We each like and don't like things that the next guy thinks is just the opposite.  So why should we be herded into a stock of housing that is near the one size fits all?

Instead of accepting what the neighborhood wants you to be, challenge them if you believe your style of life does not fit into that cookie cutter requirement.  Go for a variance or special permit.  Meet their size requirements and you will have a better opportunity to succeed in court if they so choose to force their beliefs onto you as you decide how you want to live your life.  Because your home is YOURS.  There is nothing wrong with any style of home (well, except brutalism...:)), as long as it is what YOU want. 

Maybe I should stay in and work instead of wandering through neighbors houses.


Not a paint by numbers kinda thing...

House plan books.  Cookie Cutter housing Developments.  Prefabricated modular homes.  These are all pretty common ways for people to obtain new housing.  Major national corporations are in the business of providing low cost, low quality (in most cases) housing that meets the metrics of cost, square footage and the all-important bedroom/bathroom combo.  They have formulas for what is the optimal to have to spend to create a 'home'.  These metrics are generated by a principle of economies of scale.  And for running a business, this is what capitalism is about. 

Unfortunately, the 'product' they deliver is supposed to be someone's actual living space.  The place they sleep, eat, have sex, watch tv, laugh, cry, raise children, have pets, in other words, where life happens.  And from what I have learned, how you and I choose to live our life is never the same.  We have similarities due to our culture and our general physical makeup, but our differences define our lives. 

So when the factory house meets the individual, we get a clash that is not good for either one.  The stock house may have a beautiful window, but due to it being generically placed for efficiency, it looks directly at the neighbor 8 feet away.    It may have a perfect count of bedrooms and bathrooms, but may overlook that your teenage son CAN NOT share a bathroom with his 12 year old sister. 

Instead, there may be an easier way.  The key here is to remember that we are just moving boxes around.  98% of rooms in our lives are 6 sided boxes.  Go ahead, think about it.  They all have windows, doors and other objects in them, and they come in all shapes and sizes, but they all have 4 walls, a ceiling and a floor.  And there are limitless combinations of how these boxes can be organized.  Some are standard.  Some are more personalized.  Depending upon what you want your life to be like, you need to decide (or communicate with your architect) what your patterns, priorities and relationships are. 

The key is for you to communicate what you want those patterns, priorities and relationships you desire.  Architects are not mind readers.  We draw.  We can be creative, but like every other human being, we have our preferred patterns, priorities and relationships that we think are ideal.  They WILL be different from yours sometimes.  You must remember that an architect is designing a home for you, not them. 

So when you are in the design process and you don't like the relationship of the boxes, it is your job to communicate that.  It is the architect's job to take that information and solve that problem.  You are not hurting their feelings, you are helping to make your home yours!

Isn't that like a mobile home?

Yep, I live in a kit house.  The reality of my place is that my domicile is a house that was a kit of parts.  In that way, it is similar to a mobile home or a Pulte Winston (okay, I made that up, but it sounds like some of the names the big developers use).  But there is a major difference.  Quality.

Let's go back to the boom time of American building.  The war was over, Levitt was developing the first mass building development and Sears was the name everyone went to when they wanted to find their dream home.  There was a system to build a lot of homes for a reasonable price.  And build they did.  I have lived all over the eastern half of the US and spent some time in southern California, and I have seen the layer of homes that was added post WWII.  It consists of densely packed neighborhoods (cheaper to afford and was actually allowed by the zoning Nazi's then) that have similar or like-styled homes that go on and on.  And unlike those that were built in the 70's and 80's (a time I actually learned to love wandering through houses under construction), they look old, but not tired.  Yes, some are neglected, but I have seen mill buildings that once roared with industry relegated to rotted floors and mansions that the owner just couldn't maintain and they too look neglected.  Those that were built during the boom were built with care.  Craftsmen (the people, not the style) took pride in the fact that they built homes.  The skill of a carpenter or a tile layer was evident.  You can tell, even with the simple cape copy that is everywhere in New England, that there was care in the work.  The numbers did not drive the product.  

Enter national builders.  They saw the scale.  The economy of scale that is.  If they went with a slightly lower grade finish over 20,000 homes, they could save 'x'.  If the door was stock, but did not match the style of the home, so be it if it met the budget.  And that skilled laborer?  How much?  I am sure we can squeeze some poor guy with a hammer to do it cheaper.  It all became about the bottom line.  The craft was taken out of homes (except in the really nice custom ones, they have and will show the effect of having a larger pool of cash and a desire to 'have the best, and be willing to pay for it').  What we have been left with is an industry intent on fast, cheap and repeatable.  Which leave us with shoddy, more square footage than we can afford for quality and bland, copycat developments that give you no idea if you are in Augusta Maine or Albuquerque.

Instead, I ask you to consider when looking to purchase, build or renovate, that you look to do so with quality and personalization of YOUR life in the space.  Forget size (as long as you meet your needs-TinyHomeNation may not be for everyone!) and instead focus on the feel of the space, both physically and visually.  Downsize the area and upsize the texture, use and creativity in your place.  Encourage or seek out a true craftsman to do the work.  One who understands it is his or her name on the finished work and knows what that means.  Even if it is a craftsman putting together a kit house!

Two dimensions? Or Three?

Too often, the metrics of real estate are flat and two dimensional.  Location, number of bed/bathrooms, cost and of course, the marker to beat all markers, square footage are the common ones.  All of these are two dimensional.  As human beings, we never experience the world this way.  So why does our relationship to our homes have to start, deal with and stay connected to, these flat metrics?  We don't, but like having everything you need on your phone, we have gotten used to this commoditization of our living space.  This has led to us focusing on the comparables. 

Insert the Wall Street Journal. 

Reading my usual news and information services today and came across the article in the Journal about the trend in real estate to get away from the standard 8' ceiling.  I know I like taller ceilings, but I am 6'4" and have a closer perception of the extremely low.  But the research they did on the article ( by Stefanos Chen) was good to see.  They compared the price of real estate in several markets across the country and found that the higher the ceilings in a unit, the greater the price typically was.  And while the New York numbers scared the living daylights out of me, the concept was great.  Instead of the typical two dimensional metrics, this one was about the QUALITY of the space.  The feeling of spaciousness and grandeur, let alone the ability to have higher windows and more light, were the main reasons for the desire for higher ceilings. 

 I offer that seeing the numbers from the WSJ article, we as owners and architects should be focusing on the quality of space.  By looking at this new third dimension of a place, we can finally start to measure in a way that relates to the quality of the space.  I would also argue that if we have a larger quality metric like this, with a smaller two dimensional metric, we may begin to see happier homes, those that would be in a scale we enjoy living in, not just a plan of square footage.




A New Adventure...

Sometimes, life works in funny ways.  When I got into the business of architecture, one of my first projects was a mid-century Deck House in Carlisle MA.  I had always thought houses were meant to be walls, rooms and boxy.  Your choice was between a ranch, a colonial and, if you were way out on the edge of design, a craftsman.  But this house took me into a whole new world.  Open concept, huge expanses of glass, exposed timbers and a building set into the land the way it should be.  Quietly, I became enamored.

The years went by, life changed in many ways.  Then one day, my partner showed me a real estate listing for a Deck House in Carlisle.  She liked it, I liked it, so we went to the open house.  Getting there 10 minutes early (thanks mom for that habit!), the whole team fell in love.  We frantically figured out what needed to do and had an accepted offer by the time we laid our heads down.

Fast forward a couple of months and we are in!  In a place that inspired(s) my design style.  In a place that has land and the building is sited properly.  In a place that is still small by american standards, but huge by this architect's comfort level.  And we are happy. 

To share this experience, this blog may veer off path for a little while, but in the end, what really happened was that the architect in this case, put his money where his mouth is. And hopefully, expand on the concepts and ins and outs of a good building through this real life example.

Gut Rehab or Gut Check?

A real estate agent and I were talking a few days ago about the state of the market.  In our area, the price of real estate is almost exponentially growing.  The thirst for space and 'enough' room to live is outstripping the actual space available (or allowable) in the area.  This has caused a crunch on those of us who like the area we live but can no longer afford to grow with our lives.

The conversation rambled, but we hit on a point that many overlook.  What if you just made what you currently have work?  We discussed and came up with two alternatives to feeling forced to move.

The Gut Rehab

This is the classic that, as an architect, I really enjoy.  Taking a structure down to its bare minimum, finding better patterns of organization and space proportioning and then inserting this updated plan into/onto an existing home is the reason I got into this line of work in the first place.  Renovations can take an existing 'less than ideal' home and with slight to major modifications, make it exactly what you want and need.  The transformation of place and space is almost always dramatic and satisfying to all.

The Gut Check

And while I am a large proponent of the major renovation (a man has got to make a living, you know!) there is a step that is often overlooked in getting to the renovation.  The gut check is the step of asking yourself, what do I really need to have to make life work?  Unfortunately, this is usually only done after step one is planned and priced.  "Whoa, HOW much for that 100 extra square feet???"  The sticker shock of the cost of renovation is almost universal.  Even to professionals in the design side of the world, it often seems to be higher than expected.  This causes a round of asking what do we REALLY need?  In turn, superfluous items and square footage are often discarded in favor of what is 'practical' or 'realistic'.  Hard decisions are often made that get rid of things once thought to be non-negotiable.  The dreams and collections of ideas get pared down to what really matters to you. 

Instead of waiting until this point, a better approach is to do the gut check early.  With the threat of costing a lot of money, this is simple.   But often, the fantasy of thinking you will get a deal delays the necessary questions and decisions from being asked and made.  But in the end, this will need to be done.  And to save yourself the cost and delay of redesign, look around you to see what is superfluous in what you have.

Three main things to look for are the following

Step 1.  Do you have space being used to store things that you will/may never use again?  Old items that no longer serve a purpose in your life, but are just forgotten often take up a good portion of the space we live in.  A good test that I learned to determine this is to pack all of your things away.  Then as you need to use something, you unpack it, use it and find a place to store it.  After a certain amount of time, you may come to realize that there are still 8 boxes of stuff that you never even thought about.  That is your addition by subtraction right there.  If however, you unpacked everything, then you move to step two.

Step 2.  Is your stuff organized in the best possible manner?  Are your closets organized and easily accessible? Can you find something when you want it?  If not, what may happen is you will not hunt forever, but instead will go get another one (this is one of two main culprits of the problem in step one).  Organization of what you have and need to have is also a good indicator of if you need to expand.  Sometimes, you have only what you need, and when you have it organized in a fashion that maximizes the space and accessibility and now you can eliminate the need to build/renovate/move.  Other times, even after completing steps one and two, there is still not enough space.

Step 3.  Work with a design professional to determine the requirements of your addition/renovation.  You have pared down.  You have organized.  But you still cannot live the life you need to live due to space/planning constraints. If this is the case, and you have done the previous steps, you will be able to sit with a professional and have them find the sweet spot for your life.  Every case varies.  But a professional armed with an honest assessment of your needs can work to create only the space required to get your life to where you want it to be. They can minimize the 'what if' scenarios of the less organized client and hone in on maximizing your value. 

If you follow these three steps, when you do get that number for your addition, you will be comfortable in knowing, yes, this is truly only what is needed and not a penny more because you have done the gut check. 



Yeah, that sounds great!....And that too!

I had an opportunity to practice what I preach last week.  It was a simple set of interior renovations to baths, mudrooms, etc...  Then I started speaking with the owner.  She is a smart, professional woman who is renovating a home with her husband.  So it was kind of funny to listen to what she wanted.  "the contractor I talked to said this was the best," "my friend recommended this product," or 'my landscape architect suggested this material'...But the gist of what I heard was, 'It all sounded great in each case, but I can't decide who sounded 'greatest'!"  It is common when people start (or are in the process of) renovating.  There are so many ideas.  So many outlets to propose something.  It can be overload. 

Here is where I would love to say that an architect can/could come in and solve all of the problems.  And in some cases, they may be able to.  But what really should happen is to stop, look around and ask yourself, "what do I/we really want our home to be?" 

When I (as a human, not necessarily as the architect) suggested that this couple did not have to do all of their projects as they thought they should, but rather as they wanted, it clicked in her eyes.  The second walkway to no where that occasionally a Fed Ex driver might use which would have cost between $5k-$10K to redo was eliminated in favor of maybe reallocating those resources to the entry approach she really wanted.  The bump out on the third floor at a difficult and costly location for their son's bathroom was taken away and relocated to an existing unused closet. 

It was fun to see her click into what she really wanted.  The interior designer she works with was there to guide her, and her landscape architect was able to adjust her plans to meet what this family actually wanted.  And we became what designers should be, advocates and providers of a service to achieve this family's dreams, not what is trendy or what will pad our portfolio. 

It is not always easy to get someone focused on what really matters.  But in most cases, they have a million ideas bouncing around, the key is to get them out of the 'should for other's sake' or 'but what about every third february 19th's dinner' and into the 'yeah, that is what WE want' mindset.  It makes value and cost decisions much easier and leaves a better taste in everyone's mouth.


Remodel vs. Remodern

In the previous post, I mentioned a concept called Remodern.  It is time for me to explain why that is different than simple remodeling. 

To begin, I am going to state one simple fact.  Architects and builders have no freaking clue what the future will hold.  Even if you have an exquisite, perfectly designed mid century modern home, there was no way that the concept of the iPad was even a twinkle in the eye of the design team.  Things change.  What was state of the art then is not even on the shelves today.  So why should you try to adapt your life to those standards?  Why not modernize your home to match your life?

Now don't get me wrong, remodeling is a great thing.  Changing the look and feel of a place with additions, changes in finish and in most cases, colors or furnishings gives a place a new, updated feel of the old space.  In most cases, this quenches the desire to have a fresh and updated look to a space that no longer feels new.

Remoderning is like that, but starts in a different place.  Instead of just the simple changing or adding, Remoderning involves the exercise of questioning the existing plan for how useful it is for your life. Instead of simply saying we need more space and we will be adding, this process looks at the plan to see if it meets a modern life.  Maybe the flow of the rooms is questioned.  Maybe the location of current openings (key in furniture placement) are reconsidered.  Maybe the actual layout itself is questioned. 

Unfortunately, this process is not a paint by numbers approach.  The solution that is perfect for a couple may be completely wrong for a family of five.  And that is the second critical difference, address what is critical for your life and not just what is thought to be critical for resale.  While those who intend to flip for profit keep their market wide open with that 4th bedroom or granite counter b.s., people who Remodern a home for themselves look to make THEIR space update to THEM.  The funny thing is, when you create a unique space, with the human living there in mind, sometimes, that creates a better resale value.

If you are interested and would like to go over how to Remodern your life, send me a note.  It is not for everyone.  But if you want your home to match your life as it is today, I would enjoy going on the journey with you.



What do you REALLY need?

Sometimes your friends and family are there to inspire you.  Two friends have undertaken a journey that most just dream about.  They sold all of their stuff, bought (and learned how to captain) a sailboat and are currently plotting a course through the Caribbean that would make pirates and Jimmy Buffet a bit jealous. 

While I am not jealous of the water and Caribbean journey (I would prefer a mountain myself for my get away destination), the idea that someone actually did what we all talk about is inspiring.  Having the commitment to change your lifestyle for the QUALITY of the experience and the perseverance to do so in the face of every critic is something that should inspire all of us. 

Upon receiving the invitation,  I was reminded not to bring any non-consumables as there was no space for anything.  With bottle and cigars in hand, I met them for an afternoon with old friends. 

After catching up, we got to the logistics of the size of their (and their aussie shepard) living quarters (I know, damned architect and his one track mind).  They had a place for everything.  And while there were some maps and a couple of dishes out on the counter, it looked pretty clean and dare I say, roomy.  They had jettisoned everything they did not need and were now living with just what floated along with them.  There was no massive couch or big screen.  But there was plenty of places to sit to chat and even a TV.  There was a bed for them, as well as a space that could be cleared if a guest happened to need a place to stay.  There was fresh water…there were the basics. 

This got me to thinking.  They had made a series of choices to have less.  The deciding factors on this reduction were simple…what space do we have?  And what the heck do we NEED?  With these two factors, they made the life around them what they wanted.  By getting rid of (or storing in a couple of boxes at an uncles’ place) stuff that they did not need (including two cars and a nice bungalow in a quiet neighborhood) they were able to attain their dream of being cruisers.  By leaving their well paying (but life sucking) jobs and budgeting and planning for what they NEEDED, they were able to set off on a journey that currently has two goals…shorts for Christmas and Cuba by March. 

What if we all took stock like this?  What if we looked at what we really needed, and then lived with that?  For some, it would mean they could travel when they want.  For others, that small business may be within reach if the salary loss would not break them.  For others, they may need to go shopping to buy other stuff they NEED.  But in each case, this commitment to finding what you need and living with that opens up to what you really want out of life. 

Architects Should Add Value

A popular theme for architects now is to lament the ‘McMansion’ phenomenon.  ‘All these ignorant people are just buying square footage’ we say.  In the same conversation, we talk about Mr. Jones new home and I ask if we can find any way to reduce the size of the program (architects call the space they believe needs to be used ‘the program’) in order to find some cost savings that are desired by Mr. Jones after his Dream Home turned into a Big Hairy Overbudget home.  ‘What are you talking about?  Reduce the space that Mr. Jones needs?  We design homes, not houses.  And 4700 square feet is as tight as I can make it!’  In other words, said architect refused to look at the fact that the 20’ x 19’ second bedroom may not actually be the best use of space…architects can be ass holes.

While the ‘masses’ are all striving for more and more square footage, enlightened architects, who should be able to make a small space feel larger and maximize use and reduce waste, are just as ignorant that a reduced, well laid out footprint and plan are part of the value people expect from an architect, yet are rarely ever given.

A friend of mine once rented a condo in Cambridge.  It was a nice place in an old brick building on a tree lined street.  Though she had a crazy neighbor who liked to argue with their spouse, particularly after 10 pm, she also had one of the best single person kitchens I have ever seen.  Corner cabinets that were built to slide out at an angle, hidden slide out cutting boards, and just enough space for two to prep, cook and clean without tripping over each other.  This was a kitchen stripped to its basics.  There was not an island bar, or a 48” wide sub zero and commercial stove that would look oh so nice in the latest issue of DB Design Magazine.  Instead, it was what a kitchen needed to be for that type of unit-practical, functional, and at the same time, beautiful. It was designed for both function and form.  And as such, it was a pleasure to use it (ok, I just was a guest and noshed while my friends made the meal, but I WAS comfortable).

Architects need to provide this service.  Find the best use of space.  It is not easy.  You have to say no sometimes to the urge to ‘just add a little bit’.  But when you make a 1000 square foot condo feel more like 1200 square feet with design, you have just created a value of $40,000 (in the projects in this area, $200/sf is not an uncommon number).  Instead, if your only contribution is to lay down more ink to make a 1400 sf condo feel like a ‘cozy’ 1000 sf, you have just cost your client $80,000…I would fire myself for that, by the way!

By no means do I mean to suggest that people do not need (or deserve to have) 4,000 sf. homes.  Everyone has their own needs in life.  However, if someone is looking for 4,000 and gets 4,400 because someone either did not want to think or was just not paying attention to the amount of corridor their sprawling plan was producing, it is waste. 

Welcome to (Un)common Architect

Why is architecture only for the rich?  Why are most housing developments so horrible?  What can architecture bring to the average person that the national cut rate builders cannot?  How can this be done on a scale that makes the world a better place for the owner, the builder and the architect?

What are the major factors in the cost of architecture?  Why do architects charge the fees they do?  What ever happened to the cottage and small homes built for the returning work force in the 50’s? 

Strip it away to find out what it really is.  That is the goal here.  We are having a conversation that attempts to find out why, come up with possible solutions, and create a community of us who want to figure out a better way.  I'll get my pencil...