Lessons in Design – how not to design a house

Disclaimer: My articles focus on evaluating design for the purpose of educating the general public on what constitutes good design. To do this, I often use humor and sarcasm without restraint to make my points. Architects tend to take themselves a little too seriously more often than not, so I aim to bring a light-hearted approach to the profession and make it accessible and understandable to those without an education in the field. Proceed with caution.

Houston Modern "Outdoor" Tour
Houston Modern “Outdoor” Tour

This past weekend, I attended the Houston Modern Outdoor Design Tour. Well, that’s not true entirely. I attended part of the tour, got fed up with it and went home to salvage what was left of my day (and that’s coming from an architecture fanatic). Why? The tour was represented as a “Self-guided driving tour of 10 stunning examples of modern outdoor living and spaceplanning in the Houston area” (emphasis mine). As it turned out, there were 13 homes on the tour (hooray, more homes!), but only a small minority were good in terms of design (boo, bad design!). With 9 of the 13 homes currently listed for sale, what it was in actuality was a realty tour. People paid $30 to traipse through half-built homes, horribly designed houses, and minimal ‘outdoor’ space (which was mostly just an adjacent yard for the home). The only ‘stunning’ part about the tour was how there was absolutely no standard whatsoever for determining which homes were included. The outdoor spaces were definitely not the highlight of the tour, and even some other attendees asked, “What was the name of this tour again?”. It was a night and day difference in experience quality between both the AIA Home Tour and the Houston Modern Home Tour that was held in the summer of this year by this same group. I was very disappointed with the quality of homes on this tour, as I felt the last tour in June was a success overall. The organization’s mission seems to aim at informing and inspiring, “with carefully selected architects, neighborhoods and architecture, our home tours are unlike anything you’ve ever seen.”. As I remember it, the call for entries stated only a ‘first come first serve’ entrance requirement. How is that ‘carefully selected’ if everyone gets in? To be fair, not all of the homes were awful. There were several good ones. Unfortunately, they were overshadowed by sub-par designs that I could not get out of my head.

It felt oddly reminiscent of the (few) ‘cultural festivals’ I’ve attended, where you pay an entry fee to get in, just to find out that its a room full of vendors trying to sell you things that you can find on your own outside the event – without paying to get in (I’m looking at you, Italian ‘festival’!). If I wanted to shop for houses, I’d go on www.har.com and save myself the time of showing up to sub-par houses that I’m not even in the market for. Unfortunately, I didn’t thoroughly analyze the houses before attending the tour (oops), but in my defense, I shouldn’t have to. Until this organization puts a standard in place to ensure a high quality level for homes on the tour, I won’t be attending again (even with a free ticket). The good part that came of this was interacting with some of the builders (on the better designs) and getting a lot of great material on how not to design.

Read on for some hair-ripping, gut kicking-ly good examples of how not do design a house (or anything for that matter).

Lesson 1 Recap: Quality. Consistency. Integrity. Standing behind your work, whether a product, service or event.

3231 Audley:

I took the opportunity to show a few images of the tour to a friend and a family member, neither of whom have any background in design or architecture. As I scrolled through a few of the more cringe-worthy homes, their first reaction was ‘I don’t see anything wrong with it’. After I pointed out the flaws, inconsistencies and abhorrent detailing, they each went through a moment of pause, reflection and huge “Ah-ha!” revelation. Let’s take a look at the first revelation:

Carpeted bathroom
Carpeted bathroom

Carpet does not go in bathrooms. It is a well known fact that textile fibers will mold and mildew when exposed to um…liquid. Yeah. We’ll go with liquid. So if you put down carpet under the toilet, there is a good chance that some liquid will make its way onto said carpet, and will thus produce mold and mildew (if not at the very least just being a pain to clean up). I listened to a volunteer/docent tell us how there was ‘an awesome bathroom’ upstairs that we couldn’t miss. This was it. I’m pretty sure someone ‘missed it’ and I’m not even referring to the stray liquid we saw on the carpet. This should never happen. Never. This is bad design. If you know someone with a carpeted bathroom and they claim it’s awesome, go to their home, have a few too many drinks and then casually announce your trip to the bathroom. Proceed as normal. If they still insist that carpet in bathrooms is a great idea, there is a good chance they’ve never cleaned said bathroom, and you should flee for your life. FLEE!

No carpet at thresholds
No carpet at thresholds

This home was carpet-centric; except for thresholds. Every time I got to a doorway, the carpet was magically missing between the rooms. I’m speechless, honestly.

Outdoor space in need of repairs
Outdoor space in need of repairs

Moving on then! Since this was an ‘outdoor’ tour, we took a quick peek at the rooftop deck. With peeling paint. And awkward skinny/fat stairs. Again, speechless.

Leaking ductwork
Leaking ductwork

Now I’m no HVAC expert, but I’d say that when one of your vents is surrounded by water damage, you should probably call in a repairman. Just a guess. I won’t go into the stairs that rattled and shook because they weren’t secured to the wall or the first level parking garage – er…outdoor space – that was void of life and interest. Why? Because I didn’t bother to take any more pictures of this museum-turned-residence. (Okay, fine, I did, but I won’t subject you to them as to prevent further heart palpitations).

Lesson 2 Recap: Don’t put carpet in bathrooms, use continuous flooring throughout a space – including thresholds, fix leaks before putting your house on a tour.

719 Bomar:

It's a front! It's a back! It's a side!
It’s a front! It’s a back! It’s a side!

The next home we’ll learn from is one that made me face-palm multiple times and just shout, “Whaaaaat!?”. If you can guess what each of these photos consists of and the purpose behind the decision in each space, you are a talented individual. You can read minds.

With a listing price at almost $300 per square foot, this one bedroom house made me laugh out loud. It’s advertised as a two bedroom, but rest assured, there is only one true bedroom with walls and a door – unless you don’t mind using curtains as ‘walls’ and the fact that you can’t classify a room without emergency egress windows as a bedroom. Since the tour was much more of a realty tour, I’ll go ahead and say it: this house is ridiculously over-priced. Back of the napkin estimates would value this house around half the price they are asking, with a limited buying audience since it only has one bedroom. Square footage isn’t the only factor to purchasing a house: quality of design matters.

Let’s start this lesson at the front. Side. Back? This house doesn’t have an elevation that screams ‘Enter here!’ so visitors wander from one end to the other looking for a way in. They’re met with a garage and two front doors. You heard right, two. It’s like a choose-your own adventure that ends up in the same disappointing space. Aw. Take note: a good design should have some sort of hierarchy in form to indicate the entry and define the facade.

Mosaic Tile Floor
Mosaic Tile Floor

The ‘entry’ was confused, and so was I – was it an office or a foyer? Both! The uneven mosaic floor was rough and uncomfortable in socked feet, so I quickly retreated to the second floor. I was greeted with mirrors. Everywhere.

Mirror Mirror, on the wall. Please go away.
Mirror Mirror, on the wall. Please go away.

Let’s get a few things straight: mirrored walls are obnoxious and distracting. I know, I have one in my dining room *shudder*. As soon as we begin our own renovations, it will be my pleasure to take a sledgehammer to our mirrored wall and replace it with a tasteful, framed mirror that hangs neatly on the wall for easy optional removal in lieu of forced narcissism. Mirrors covering every square inch of a space is wrong. There, I said it. The claim of, “It makes a space look bigger” is an excuse for not trying harder. There are other ways to make a space feel bigger, including: light paint and finish colors, high ceilings, lots of natural light, smaller furniture, correctly proportioned moldings, and vertically oriented decorations. No one wants to live in a gym or feel like they’re caught in impromptu porn flick. Get rid of wall-to-wall mirrors before you scare the guests away…or encourage something you shouldn’t. *awkward wink*.

Random Window!
Random Window!

The next oddity I discovered was a window that connected the 4th level roof patio to the stairwell. The only way to access this window would be from the outside – I think? Not sure how that is supposed to work. This house had all sorts of quirks: curtain walls (no, not the modernist glass kind, real fabric curtains), neon lights in the bathrooms, windows into the bathroom, a passage through the laundry room to get to the master bedroom, and an elevator that only reaches the third floor of this 4 story home. You sometimes wonder if someone just decided to design on the theme of ‘why not!?’. Why not.

Curtain Wall!
Curtain Wall!

More.

Windows to the bathroom
Windows to the bathroom

Wait, there’s still more.

Elevator only reaches 3 out of 4 floors.
Elevator only reaches 3 out of 4 floors.

Even more!

Lesson 3 Recap: The exterior design should indicate where to enter by use of varying volumes, floor surfaces should be level and comfortable under bare feet when inside, mirrors should be framed and used sparingly, windows are required for all bedrooms, elevators should access all floors, and screen doors should have a closer on them (to prevent slamming) – especially when the house is listed at over $600,000.

These two homes were the ones that took the prize for ‘worst’, and I’m going to have to take a break from writing before I become ill or break into hysterical laughter. I’ll follow up with a few of the more noteworthy homes that will no doubt be a refreshing change from these examples. I hope you’ve learned a few things on what constitutes good (and bad) design. For more information on how to evaluate good design and ensure that your project doesn’t wind up on my blog, check out this recent article.



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  • That was really funny, Brinn!  I laughed out loud several times. Y’know, you laughed at the curtain that separated one “bedroom” from another, but in another state (which must remain nameless to protect the innocent?) where I visited, one bedroom was separated by (of all things) a glass door. Yep. No privacy whatsoever.  Remember the Girl Scout dressing tricks for maintaining personal privacy?  Came in handy there!

    • In Portugal, we stayed in a hotel that had a door to the bathroom, but also a huge ‘window’ to the bedroom that you couldn’t cover. Bright ideas are world-wide, apparently.

  • espicer

    This is awesome!  And makes me glad I didn’t go.  Hehe.

    • Yeah, we called it quits with 4 or 5 more houses to go.

  • Wow, craziness. You’ve got to be kidding. My fav was always the Rice Design Alliance home tour.

    • Yes, these were featured on a paid home tour. I was lucky in that my ticket was complimentary as a member of the press, but had I paid, I would have asked for my money back. Houses such as these should never be presented to the public as examples of good design. It is a shame, because the organization’s first tour this past June was decent. This iteration felt rushed, haphazard and poorly curated (if at all). The RDA tour is in March, and it along with the AIA tours are always good. There is also the Azalea Trail Home and Garden tour in the spring, which showcases more traditional design and outdoor spaces (not just side yards).

  • Jeremiah

    It seems the biggest joke of all is that you all PAID MONEY to go on this “tour”…… AHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! Oh, I mean, uh…man, bummer. 😛

    • I know, right? I feel bad for the people who actually paid to be subjected to these houses. I haven’t covered any of the good ones, but even then they couldn’t erase the horror that was nasty carpet house and mirrored magic fun house.

  • Mitzi

    Thanks for sending me the link. I enjoyed reading this post. We are house hunting this week and next here in Iraq. I’d be curious as to yor opinions on design here.

    • Do you know what kinds of building standards or codes they have there? I remember you sharing that there were some buildings with only one bathroom for multiple floors; I’m sure there is lots of room for new standards. I’d love to see some pictures if you have any!

  • Fire2ice16

    So what were the good homes?

    • I’ll be writing another post soon that will feature some of the better homes from the tour. Stay tuned…

  • Anonymous

    I’m speechless. Sarcasm is not strong enough to address this. Why should I hire an architect…?

    • Good question. It is amazing that things like this exist out there – meaning that someone, somewhere either asked for it (yikes) or ended up with it (aw). Whether it was intentional or just a really bad mistake, we need to educate the public on what is and is not good design. Here’s hoping we saved a few more poor souls from this.

  • Anonymous

    Hilarious!! All of this belongs in the “What were they thinking catagory” which unfortunately, examples abound. Sadly, Houston does not have a monopoly here. You ought to do a piece in the future where everyone sends you a photo with comments of an example from their own town/neighborhood. Nice piece Brinn.

    Doug

    • Thanks Doug! Maybe I should make a new blog article tag for “WHAT!?” or “*facepalm*”. I’m sure between all of us we could fill it up quickly. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Foreverlittle

    haha loved it

  • Lisa

    I enjoyed your observations.
    I purchased a 100+ y.o. home that had an elevator put into it by a previous owner that was epileptic, but it doesn’t go to the top floor, which is an attic that was finished at a later time with additional bedrooms and a playroom. From what I can tell, the elevator would have run through the slope of the roof, requiring reframing of the roof structure, and the owner opted to not do that. It got the owner to the main level of the home, which was of prime importance. I wonder it that was the case here in your photo.

    • I’m not sure of the reason, but if the elevator was for health reasons, the owner would have great difficulty watering the many plants on the top level balcony. While an elevator would be a nice addition for guests with mobility issues (and who may not need access to all levels of the home), it seems counter-intuitive to install an elevator that doesn’t access all floors. Thanks for stopping by to comment!