Dream Home

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’.

English: A row pine of trees line the center t...

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.

View from our future front yard

View from our future front yard

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! ūüėČ ). 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.

Preliminary mass study

Preliminary mass study

 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.

First Floor Plan

First Floor 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.

Second Floor Plan

Second Floor Plan

¬†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!

Third Floor Plan

Third Floor Plan

 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 Рthe sinks are separate from the toilet and shower area.

Roof Deck Plan

Roof Deck Plan

¬†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:

Downtown Houston at sunset

¬†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!

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  • Jakexj9000

    I’m still a little skeptical about 2nd floor area #6 – it seems that whatever you would do in that space could be done better in another space (read the paper -> Breakfast, laptop -> Study, watch TV -> Great Room, etc.)

    Also, I get the same vibe from 3rd floor area #1 – it feels like a repeat functionally of the Great Room or Study, or perhaps a combination of both, but if you already have those rooms, why not add a new type of area, such as an Art Room?

    (coming from a non-design educated person)

    • Thanks for the comment. First, you have to keep in mind that this is a custom home, designed for specific people (so personal habits, lifestyle considerations and tastes are top priority). For us, the second floor area ‘flex room’ is precisely that – we intend to use it as a master sitting area for a little while which can be closed off from the rest of the public space. It would be very useful if we had guests over in the main living space, but we wanted to go to bed earlier than them – we could shut off the flex space and enjoy a nightcap in privacy. Alternatively, since my husband wakes up much earlier than I, he could enjoy the morning paper or a cup of coffee in privacy if guests were already up and going in the house. It is also intended to be used as a newborn nursery if/when the need arises – it makes it much easier to attend to a new baby rather than going up and down the stairs every hour, in the middle of the night no less. Once the baby is older, they can be given their own room one floor above. The other intended use is for separate conversation during large parties. Not everyone wants to be involved in one single conversation, so by opening up the door to the flex space, guests are invited to enter the area and have a quieter conversation than could be had in a large group.

      As for the third level lounge/study area, that is intended to be used as a separate ‘kids playroom’. For younger kids, they will often have a large collection of toys (that are often not picked up promptly). This gives them an area to be ‘messy’ that is out of sight from the rest of the house. It will also serve as their personal ‘study space’ for doing homework, as well as convert to a twin bed area for friends who stay over. The space, once the kids are older will be a place they can play xbox or wii (or similar things) without interrupting the entertainment the adults are enjoying on the second floor.

      As for an art room, that would take place on the first level office/guest room. It has direct access to the outdoors which is ideal for painting with oils or other mediums that may require ventilation. Also, quick access to the storage shed for larger tools is practical, as well as visual connection to the outdoors and room to spread out on the ground or on table surfaces. The kitchenette is also handy for art projects to rinse brushes and store supplies in the full height cabinets.

      Hopefully that explains more of the decisions!

  • Philip

    I love it! 

  • DanT

    I think the intended uses make the “Flex” room a great feature, especially anticipating using it as a nursery with the bedrooms on the next floor up. ¬†

    Looks like a great first design, I can’t wait to see how it evolves and what it will actually look like in 3 or so years when you actually begin construction. ¬†Well done.

  • Afifah A

    I’m 17 and in my last year in high school. I’m (hopefully)¬†going to university to study Architecture next year. I just wanted to say how much you & your designs inspire me. Ever since I started reading Architangent, I cannot look at a house without asking myself “What would Brinn think?” and I’d then quietly analyse the designs in terms of practicality and such like you would. Haha.

    I hope to become half as good of an architect as you are in the future and thank you for sharing your dream house design with us!  

    • Wow, thank you for your kind words! I’m glad I’m able to be an inspiration, and I hope I can continue to be. Best of luck to you in your future studies – keep on analyzing, asking questions, and pursuing good design!

  • William Langston

    sorry, but externally it looks like another cliche of “modern” architecture. bunch of cubes merging into each other. i understand its “custom” and thus that is a response to any criticism, but its also part of the city. doesnt houston already have too many “urban chic living” (tacky boxes, with perhaps a few shed roofs here and there). your definition of sustainable seems suspect as well. “healthy material”? are you doing an energy model? how does plopping a few pv cells on your pile of cubes and glass suddenly make it green? do you know the embodied energy the pv cell represents? exposed wood on exterior? in houston? good luck with that. i suppose you could use treated wood, but usually that isnt “healthy”. or you could use a super dense tropical hardwood… but sustainable forestry does not include tropical hardwoods (such as ipe).

    you would be wise to explore the more simple andhumble and beat

    • Thanks for stopping by to comment. First, I agree with you. It does look like another cliche ‘modern’ box. However, this is definitely not the finished design, and as the image describes, it is only a massing study. After creating that mass model, we quickly decided that we do not want to go the generic ‘white box with ipe siding’ route as so many others do in Houston. We’ve developed a fairly detailed study model in SketchUp showing alternate building materials, and I plan to write an update showing the progress soon.

      The program requirements and limited site definitely drive the form (form following the function), but a box is the most efficient form in terms of energy concerns. Granted, we are offsetting a lot of the efficiency with lots of glazing (though we mitigate by only glazing on the north side), irregular intersections (but it provides light at the back of the house without peeping neighbors seeing in), and we’re aiming for supplemental energy for the few times that hurricanes will knock out the power (we happen to like A/C after a hurricane). As you can see, we are trying to balance quite a few requirements, and truth be told, we’re on a budget. If we had unlimited funds, I know the design would be different, but we’ve selected a city lot within our means, which is part of the foundation of sustainability.

      If you want to take the idea of sustainability literally, then no one should build anything – ever. That is the most sustainable way to live (at least for the environment, not so much for humans). Since that isn’t realistic, we’re aiming to find that balance and compromise that provides shelter in a compact lot, in a dense urban environment, and by using local materials and passive design decisions to minimize our home’s impact. Living life means we’ll be using products that were created and caused harm to the environment. We don’t have control over that fact, but we can be selective with which products we use and lessen the impact.

      At the end of the day sustainability is not cut and dry, black and white; it isn’t easy to say what is or is not sustainable because each piece cannot be evaluated until it is seen with the whole. The problem is how do you define what the summation of parts is? You may find this past article to be more informative on how I define sustainability and what my ultimate goals are for design: http://architangent.com/2011/10/pushing-the-envelope/

      I hope you’ll stay tuned for the update that shows more of the direction we’re heading with the design.

    • William Langston

      ¬†my apologies.. got cut off.¬† i would explore the simple formsl and sustainable work of lake flato, olson kundig, miller hull, mckay lyons sweetapple, and others.¬† fascinating design is born from simple design, with attention to the subtle details like how a timber beam articulates with the columns and purlins,¬†¬† start with the structural frame and go from there.¬† i infer from pictures you are in Houston.¬† Ive never designed there, but it seems like a hurricane area.¬† Perhaps you could do something really interesting with exposed cross bracing.¬† what is sustainable for that region of the country?¬† i would imagine storm water surge is a bad problem in such a massive urban concrete paradise.¬† Maybe you can store your storm water for watering the lawn, or if nothing else to more slowly funnel it into storm sewers.¬† this could then provide the opportunity for more interesting details.¬† gutter connections to tanks, gutter connections to frame, etc.¬† Also, i was looking through some of your designs.¬† you have good computer skills.¬† and bravo for putting yourself out there to be critiqued.¬† lord knows us architects are a mean group.¬† but i tell my students all the time, merely drawing an arrow from window to window doesnt mean that is what air flow will actually occur.¬† the air isn’t simply going to flow from one open window, across the house, to another open window at the same level just because there are some fancy blue arrows on your rendering.¬† even if you had them placed more appropriately, i believe in a hot humid climate like Houston there will not be much natural ventilation going on.¬† when its 95 degrees outside and 85% humidity, open windows aren’t going to do a damn thing unless you have the stack effect from hell.¬† the best strategy i would think is to maximize r value, use of air barrier and vapor barrier, and minimize huge expanses of glass (even north facing glass will hemorrhage energy).¬†¬† huge glass walls probably best used a little higher latitudes.¬† maybe 35-45 degrees north.¬†

  • Dwaguillard

    Hello Mrs. Miracle.¬† I read this article, I have to agree with some of the comments below.¬† This doesn’t appear to have many aspects that are sustainable in nature.¬† Or if there are, you haven’t explained them clearly.¬† Sustainable design is about reducing a humans ecological footprint – the amount of the biosphere required to supply the raw resources a human uses, as well as absorb the waste.¬† Thus, re-use of materials, materials with a very high recycled content, cradle to cradle materials (bionutrients vs technical nutrients), life cycle assessment, toxins in materials that leech out, emissions, embodied energy, electricity use/sf (by building type) an a long list of other items go into making a building sustainable.¬† it could be that this building will be sustainable, but right now it isn’t clear how – so your assertion that you accomplished the initial goals (one of which was sustainability) seems to be a bit off.¬† (side note, not sure what urban living does or doesnt have to do with sustainability – aside from mass transit and walking – neither of which are viable in houston).¬† your argument that if we really wanted to be green we wouldnt build at all seems misguided.¬† sustainability isn’t subjective as you seem to hint at.¬† It is just very complicated to design correctly and required alot of expertise.¬† i do agree though that taking a typical home and adding on to it PV cells and solar hot water heaters isn’t exactly sustainability.¬† that’s just merely using technology that is available now.¬† By some people’s definitions, Sustainable design also has taken on the role of the health of its occupants (in my view this is just design).¬† but this would be more items like keeping air clean and ventilated, proper detailing of the envelope to prevent mold growth and water leakage, and access to daylight and views.

    As for the design itself, not sure i know enough to really comment and be fair.¬† I am completely ignorant as to what the vernacular style is of texas/houston/etc.¬† even then, vernacular doesnt necessarily mean good.¬† afterall, the vernacular architecture of boston isn’t exactly an extremely modern glass and copper building – yet anyone who visits the gardner museum would be foolish to say it’s not a nice building.¬† It is an interesting form though.¬†

    in your introduction you mention the desire for 4 bedrooms (2 for kids, 1 for guest, and a master), plus an office, and elevator.¬† Your final design i see 3 bedrooms (?).¬† In general, if this is a dense urban environment as i think you said, this seems a bit over the top perhaps.¬† accessibility concerns do not lead to a logical choice of an elevator being a “necessity”.

    im not sure what you mean by the “modernist idea” of “truth in materials”.¬† if you mean nothing “faux” – that isn’t exactly a modernist issue.¬† put another way, plenty of non-modernist buildings have “true” materials.¬† i always was bothered by the term “modern architecture”.¬† it just doesnt narrow things down much.¬† i find that the best way to define a modern era design approach is simply one in which the design of the building has no preconceptions – but rather emerges as a result of its surroundings.¬† this leads to things like asymmetrical buildings as opposes to bilaterally symmetrical “palladian” styles.

    my only other suggestion is to lighten up on how you refer to non-architects.¬† somewhere towards the front you mention that you do not look down on people who are ignorant on what “good design” is.¬† good design is hardly something that requires training to know, and different strokes for different folks.¬† it is implied from this that you assume you are not ignorant as to what good design is, yet i am a designer and frankly im not sure why i should characterize this as good design.¬† at least not yet anyway.¬† i will revisit.¬†

    • Hi there! Thanks for dropping by. While I could write many pages in response to your comment, I’ll try to keep it short (though that is hard for me).

      First, this is the very first step in design. That means we haven’t decided on what the materials will be (though we have thought about it and have preferences), so I can’t expound upon the specifics of sustainability as it relates to material choice just yet. That really only leaves us with a few concepts of sustainability, which I am over-simplifying for the sake of the majority of readers (those who may not know anything about sustainability). For the majority of readers, highlighting technology like solar panels, pointing out the preference for ‘healthy’ materials and describing our goals is sufficient. While I didn’t go into every detail of the concept, the house is quite sustainable as a concept. The glazing faces north, while we eliminated or minimized east/west and southern glazing. This is a passive solar design strategy. Passive design strategies account for a large portion of how a building performs, and that is what we’re seeking first and foremost. However, given this is the first iteration of the design and we’re still in schematic design, it wouldn’t make sense to talk about the building envelope, specific materials, etc.¬†

      As for the notion of urban living being sustainable, it is very evident that urban living – compared to suburban living – is sustainable. Given that average commutes in Houston take over an hour each way, that is a lot of gas, car maintenance and not to mention time that we’re saving. Think of all the carbon emissions we’ll avoid by living in the city. My husband and I both take public transit, and we only own a single vehicle. We walk to the grocery store, and to almost every other store we need to shop at. Houston is most definitely a place where you can walk, bike or take transit – it just isn’t very popular.¬†

      By your own definitions you are supporting that this design is sustainable – we are reducing our emissions by living in the city, we are considering which materials will/will not off gas harmful toxins/chemicals (‘healthy materials), and we’re providing passive solar design while maximizing daylight and views by taking advantage of our site. In your own words, we’re creating a sustainable design. While sustainability isn’t subjective, it can be vague and ambiguous. Wood may be more sustainable than concrete, until you factor in that the wood is being shipped halfway across the world; likewise maybe wood isn’t as sustainable when you consider it will rot whereas concrete will not. Like you said, it is immensely complicated, and I only posit that sustainability is not cut-and-dry. It’s not easy to say ‘this is sustainable’ and ‘this is not’ until you consider every single aspect of the single item and the way it interacts with the whole. What you can claim, is whether you’re on the right track or not.

      As for the programming, we wanted 3 secondary bedrooms, but also ‘no idle spaces’. To balance these requirements, we combined the office and 3rd bedroom. While you may disagree with the square footage, it is the amount of space we determined appropriate for our lifestyle and future needs (i.e. planning for the potentially large family, long-term guests and hosting of large gatherings on a regular basis). I think it is sufficient to say that immobile persons cannot use the stairs, and thus an elevator is a necessity for them.

      “Truth in Materials” is actually a tenant of Modern Architecture. Part of the Modernist movement was to show how materials actually performed instead of covering them, or representing them as something else. The term ‘Modern’ is often misused and misunderstood, to where many people associate it with the notion of ‘contemporary’. Your notion of the site driving the design is both Modern and contemporary, and we are aiming for that. While we are not aiming for a Modern aesthetic (Think Le Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe, etc.), we are applying some of the principles and tenants of Modernism to our concepts. You can read more about the movement here:¬†http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modern_architecture

      As for your last comment, the entire exchange was directed at architects, not those who are unfamiliar with design. To clarify, those who are educated in design and have a degree in architecture or design should be able to recognize and articulate the merits (or lack of) in our concept. Perhaps you’re unfamiliar with the way I write, but I tend to keep things either a) sarcastic b) silly c) witty or d) cynical + all of the above. The sentence you reference is simply a stab at the idea of design snobbery and holding architects to an unrealistic standard. Feel free to check out some of the silly articles, which you’ll find mainly under the “Architects Like” category. That should give you a better idea of where I’m coming from.¬†

      Lastly, I have to disagree with you: I believe that good design does require education to understand. Not in the sense that an uneducated person cannot recognize good design when they see it, but rather, they may not understand WHY it is considered good design or may not be able to articulate it. That is where an education in design is helpful and the goal of why I write: to educate using humor, sarcasm and my personal experiences to show the ‘why’ of design. It’s a balance to keep it detailed enough to please those with experience while keeping it general enough for the non-designers to understand. Stay tuned for new content and more posts on the house design process!

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