The ideal house is not for everyone

This post introduces a series of musings on the design of housing. It’s likely to be a very intermittent series, but I have ruminated intermittently on house design for so long that the series will probably go on even over extended dormancies. In the short term I may make a spree, depending on how long the mood lasts.

Each time I have contemplated a floorplan in my mind, I have become more convinced that you cannot design a house properly without knowing all of its circumstances. Who is expected to live in it? Where exactly will it be located? What is the basic lifestyle of the inhabitants? What is the owner’s philosophy on maintenance, energy use, possible expansion (especially versus moving on and moving up), and obligation to fashion (frequency of renovation)?

Consider the kitchen sink. I usually start my sketches with the kitchen sink because it is the center of gravity for the entire house (metaphorically speaking). Both the sink and the stove are key working spots for a mother, and placing a window over the sink that overlooks a children’s play area gives a convenient way to keep an eye on the kids. A window facing west could provide sunsets with the supper dishwashing, while a window facing east could give dawn sun to the breakfast table (depending on where that is situated). If children will be doing chores at the sink, a window also provides an excellent opportunity for daydreaming and distraction, especially if it looks out to where other children are playing.

Considerations of playground oversight and sunrise and sunset depend upon the site of the house. Either east or west from the house site might stare directly into the neighbors, or some industrial complex completely lacking visual appeal. Features of terrain may exclude the eastward or westward facing from serving as a play area.

Then there is the matter of how the sink is situated relative to the stove, the refrigerator, and the primary working surface. The usual arrangement in new construction is a triangular setup (with the work surface closely associated with one of the other points) that lets the cook move from any point to any other quickly and efficiently. In my family, though this is not an adequate way to consider the arrangement. There are fourteen people in my immediate family and no automatic dishwasher. With the resultant extended time spent preparing meals and cleaning up afteward, there is dishwashing going on at the same time as meal preparation. If any baking is going to be done, it usually must overlap on some other meal preparation. Just the traffic to the refrigerator for drinks and snacks has to be considered as well.

In this day and age a couple with no children might have an expansive kitchen with several sinks and stoves so they can entertain large parties. Many of those large parties might not exceed the nightly supper sit-down in my family’s house. From that perspective, it is more than obvious that a proper kitchen for our family would require at least two sinks. But there is no point designing an airport for a family to live in, or a million dollar home for a family without a million dollars. I probably would stretch for the extra sink, and attendant plumbing and space, if I had a chance to rebuild the kitchen, but what about that extra stove and extra refrigerator and on and on? The cost would add up quickly. We have already proved that our family can get along with one sink and one stove, and at some point economy must temper convenience.

More than that, a central concept of my philosophy of house design is that multiple uses of space make it more valuable. Not merely more economical, but more meaningful to the inhabitants. Moving from space to space with every change in activity makes a person feel like part of a factory or of a theatrical production. That is part of the reason why people living in new homes with many rooms may find those rooms aren’t used for the purpose they were intended. The sense of home requires being in a place, and being in a place means not leaving it, even down the the level of rooms.

I think this is also part of the reason for the fad of open floorplans. People have come to believe that different activities require different spaces, but then they feel isolated. Then they think that removing the walls will cure the problem. Sometimes it helps and sometimes it leaves people even more marooned in oversized spaces.

Even if the multipurposing of space is widely accepted, or accepted by everyone I would design houses for, there is still no satisfactory way to generalize about how space will be used. Our family home-schools the children. As the children grow older and study more independently, they often retreat to their own space (it would be inaccurate to say their own room) to study. But the younger children all need to be generally within earshot of Mom or other help. It makes sense for us to use the meal table for a communal desk, a study hall, and to keep all the school books and supplies in the same room. A smaller family with kids in public school could probably use the kitchen table for eating and for homework, but for us the kitchen table is needed for meal preparation and cleanup during the same time that schoolwork must be done, so a separate dining room table (there are actually two) is needed even when multipurposing the space.

For a while I tried to imagine a houseplan that was the ultimate of adaptability, a plan that could be easily extended from a two person residence to a fourteen-person residence. As I thought of the different manners of living that would have to be accomodated by such a plan, I realized that there are house designs I think are horrid because they are poorly designed, and there are those I think are horrid because they are well designed for a life I would not want to live.

Sarah Susanka has been making a name for herself by designing houses to reflect the personality of the client rather than the personality of the architect. Her work inspires me much more than the work of Frank Wright or Le Corbusier (though Susanka is clearly influenced by Wright). Her spaces derive their significance from their suitability to use, not their expression of an artistic manifesto. Yet I think that even if someone were to give her the necessary money, she could not design a house for the way my family lives. Even within an ethos devoted to personalization there is not the range to meet every person’s ideal.