The holidays tend to make us reflect on life more than other times of the year, and part of that reflection involves thoughts on family. The way we interact with our siblings, parents, children and friends are all influenced by the design of our homes. For designers and architects, the holidays can often be a time when we sit down and ponder the merits of our home. Did everyone have a place to sit near the fire? Was the dining room large enough to accommodate all the guests? Was the kitchen easily accessible to children and adults alike? Did the plumbing hold up to increased use? Questions like these can make us long for a ‘dream home’ and the ‘perfect house’.
Over the Christmas break, my husband and I were privileged to have a tour of a striking contemporary home, designed in part by none other than Bob Borson. Bob was quite accommodating and met us early on a cold morning to show us around the house. It was a real treat to get to see the project in progress. The attention to detail was quite evident, and I can see that the project will shape up nicely. A big ‘thank you’ goes to Bob for showing us around.
The tour really got my design gears turning, as I considered how I would detail things like door trim (Bob can tell you more about using using backer rod around the door trim to create a nice reveal), balcony railings (our conversation may have turned to impalement by sharp objects – yikes!), and placement of exterior vents (I was pretty excited that they all aligned). I spent a good part of the Christmas holiday refining a design which I would now like to share with all of you.
My husband and I recently purchased a vacant lot on which we intend to build our home. While avoiding the cliche ‘forever home’ terminology, we are planning to stay put for quite some time and as such are designing around a lot of assumptions. I thought it would be a great time to show everyone the preliminary design and walk through the various decisions and goals that inform the process.
Let me preface this by saying I’m picky. My husband is also picky (I think he gets it from me). I guess you could categorize us as ‘design snobs’, though we try not to look down on anyone who is ignorant of what constitutes good design (but if you’re educated in design – be warned! 😉 ). That being said, we started off with a big wish list. A really big one, considering the property we ended up purchasing is in the city, and is 45 feet deep by 65 feet wide. Take into account the required set backs, and we were looking at maximum exterior dimensions of 32 feet deep by 60 feet wide. Sounds large, until you are required to accommodate two cars, vertical circulation, views, and on and on. Did I mention we plan to start a family in the future and we’d still like space for guests to stay overnight? This brings us to the list.
- Sweeping views of the park across the [non-existent] street. A park across from our house with unobstructed views means we can send our future little tykes out the door and still keep an eye on them.
- Sweeping views of downtown – from a roof deck. We live in the city and we definitely want to take advantage of the amazing unobstructed views. This means the structure will need at least three levels to rise above the surrounding town houses that are typical of the area.
- A first floor outdoor space with storage. In case we want to keep the kids inside the fence or decide to get a puppy (are you listening, dear husband?). I also wanted a place to do larger ‘messy’ projects with space to store large tools.
- A first floor office. In the event I want to work from home part time or do more business as Architangent, I’ll need a space where clients can meet – without leading them through our personal space. I also need a space to spread out and get creative (it takes up a lot of room, you know).
- The master suite and public spaces on a single level. We don’t like the idea of having to go up and down stairs every morning between grabbing breakfast and getting dressed, so we decided that if at all possible, one level for the kitchen/laundry/living/dining and our bedroom would be ideal.
- Open plan. For us, this means we want a single, unified great room where all the activity takes place. Since we like to host large gatherings, we need a space that can easily accommodate 30 guests, whether cooking, dining, lounging or generally hanging out. We also wanted a double height space (because it’s awesome) with access to the outdoors.
- Small bedrooms. We may be the ‘odd ones out’ on this philosophy, but we really think bedrooms are just a place for sleeping. If designed correctly, all other activities will take place outside of the bedroom, making the size requirements much smaller.
- Accessibility concerns. While we are both relatively healthy and fit, there are some health issues which could pose a problem later on. Since we are aiming to stay in the house long term and may have older parents stay with us in the future, we decided accessible spaces would be ideal. This also meant an elevator was necessary.
- Creative storage. Neither of us are fans of ‘stuff’, in the sense that we don’t hang on to the things we don’t really need or use. Excessive storage in the form of endless closets, dressers, or armoires didn’t make sense to us, and doesn’t support the lifestyle we aim to live. However, we want to be realistic in considering the storage needs of children and guests – we just want to do it creatively.
- Guest rooms. We don’t exactly have a ‘family plan’ yet, but we’ve discussed multiple children. We wanted at least two dedicated rooms for kids as well as a third bedroom for guests. If we have more children, we intend for them to share (a novel concept in this era).
- Sustainable. We’re practically turning into hippies with our urban lifestyle. To support our new found hippy ways, we would like dedicated space to house solar panels, solar hot water, and possibly other systems. This means we need some roof space set aside. Additionally, we want to choose materials that are healthy and sustainable if possible.
- “Truth” in materials. We both subscribe to the modernist idea of truth in materials. For us, that means that each material should look and perform like the material it is; no faux anything for us (unless we’re trying to achieve some post-modern irony, of course). For us, raw/exposed materials are beautiful.
- Affordable design. While we aren’t quite at the step of pricing, our goal is to have a nice space. For us, nice and expensive are not mutually exclusive. We understand that this may require creative solutions. This also means a modest square footage – we aimed at 3,000 or less to house a minimum of four people at all times (though we plan to host more on a weekly basis). Todd Vendituoli has graciously offered to help me estimate some preliminary pricing to make sure we’re on track with the design.
- No Idle Spaces. Perhaps the most difficult rule that we set up for ourselves was this one. We really dislike spaces that are only utilized once or twice a year and sit idle the rest of the time. We are going to be spending our hard earned money on a house, so we don’t want it to be wasted or underutilized. We agreed that whatever we designed should be used year round, meaning we had to design multi-tasking spaces.
From our list of criteria, we came up with a 2900 square foot house (interior conditioned space) with an additional 1850 square feet of unconditioned space (garage, porches, roof deck, etc.). Keep in mind this is still the very beginning, and a lot still needs to be figured out before we can refine it further. However, the general layout and proportions are what we want. I’m excited to say that we were able to accomplish all of the goals we set out to achieve, and we’re both really excited with where this will lead.
The view above is what visitors to the park would see. We will need to build a road to the property (it currently has no street frontage), and extend a water main and electricity from nearby. The white volumes surrounding it are neighboring structures. The area is made up of multi-level townhouses. The mass was conceived as two sets of blocks: thin service and circulation blocks offset from large public and private blocks. The division of space is best seen on the second level plan.
The first floor consists of a large covered porch with outdoor storage, the reception area (complete with your choice of stairs or elevator access) and the combined office/guest room. The office was designed for two, with a fold-down wall bed between the desks. A fully accessible bathroom is complimented by a small kitchenette and full height wardrobe storage. Notice the 10′ BL (Building Line) and 17′ GBL (Garage Building Line) setbacks. I carried these up through the house so that walls would align, and the setbacks helped inform the creation of exterior space.
The second floor showcases the two blocks. Services (kitchen, laundry, powder room) are in the skinny block on the far right, while circulation (stairs and elevator) are housed in the second skinny block (center). The two large blocks are divided into public and private spaces, and are separated by the skinny blocks. Notice that they are slightly offset from one another in repetition and that they create a very thin connection where the two block types meet at the corners; that connection is actually glass (look where the elevator meets the living room at the exterior corner). This was a strategic design move as it allows for light to come into the house from the rear of the property without our immediate neighbors having a direct view inside. The thick back wall is met at each corner with full height glazing, which I intend to be divided into operable and non-operable panes. All bathrooms will receive frosted treatment. Two more features to point out: the flex space and the reception area at the stairs. The flex space has a pocket door so that it can be closed off from the public areas, or can be left open to invite guests to share a more intimate conversation during parties. Uses might include master sitting area, temporary nursery or library. The reception space is open and ’empty’. This is intentional – first because empty space is not always bad (not every square inch needs to be crammed full of ‘stuff’), and second because it will be a great place for impromptu playing and congregating. A final feature is the back wall of the living room. It is double height, and will have a fireplace (I’m planning on vent-less), and will include built in bench seating, with additional storage ottomans underneath. The living room will easily seat seven on the couches, six on the built in bench wall and room for six more pull out ottomans for quick seating or dining surfaces; that’s 19 seats available in the living room alone (another 16 if you include the dining table and bar chairs, for a whopping 35 butts in a chair!). Party at our place!
The third floor consists of two bedrooms, a shared bathroom, a lounge space and a study space. The more public areas overlook the public areas on the second floor, since it is a double height volume. Notice that the study area overlooks the park (and the desk area will also double as a guest twin bed), while television watching faces away (similar to the second level living area). Also, the bathroom was designed so that multiple people can use it at one time – the sinks are separate from the toilet and shower area.
The roof level is simple by comparison and includes a 500 square foot deck facing downtown, a small reception area and a separate roof area for solar equipment, A/C units, and plants. A decision we made early on was to have enclosed stairs rather than designing them to be open. Not only is this a cost saving measure, but it also allows for additional storage under the stairs and at the top landing. While I haven’t drawn in any closet space yet, it is intended as such. (I know, there are a lot of ‘drawing mistakes’ I haven’t had time to correct yet).
Once on the roof deck, our view will be similar to this:
We are still about three years away from even breaking ground (there’s this thing called ‘money’ we have to have, apparently), so don’t expect too much too soon. My husband often reminds me we have a long way to go, but I just wanted to share it with you. I hope you’ll join me as we go through the process of design, documentation, construction and – well – life!
Here’s to a happy new year to everyone – may your dreams come true!
Written by: Brinn Miracle