Saturday, November 13, 2010

205. An Open Letter To Architects Everywhere

Dear Architects Everywhere (but specifically Crazy Town architects),

Please consider the VIEW when you are planning a new house. So many new houses that I have toured (uh, trespassed) in the framework stages do not focus on the view at all. This is disheartening to say the least.

The other day I walked through a construction site and the lot was magnificent—almost half an acre with stunning mature oak trees. Guess where the best view was? From the upstairs walk-in closet! This is ridiculous. Even in Architecture 101, beginning students learn the critical importance of tailoring a home to the site.

I’ve seen houses with huge windows overlooking a parking lot, master bathrooms looking out to a busy street, teeny tiny kitchen windows facing a gorgeous yard, and unnecessary 3-car garages taking up the entire backyard.  Common sense dictates that the most important rooms take advantage of the view

Architect, this probably leaves you wondering what else people want in the new houses of today? The answers might surprise you (hint: square footage isn't everything). It’s difficult to answer for every individual, but I’ll tell you what I would want:
  • A formal entry. Chances are, you ripped down a 1940’s Cape Cod to put up a McMansion, so the least you can do is make it worthwhile and provide a foyer. No one wants to walk straight into the main living space; people need a transition space, a place to set their packages and keys and hang their coats.
  • Laundry room upstairs. And I don’t mean a closet-sized space. There is absolutely no excuse for the laundry area to be treated as an afterthought. At my house, we give a lot of thought to laundry on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and usually Sundays. No one wants to trudge down to the basement 50 million times (give or take). Make it convenient and put the laundry room where the laundry is generated where it should (ideally) return to: the bedrooms.
  • Views. The house should be all about the view. Take the main view (typically the backyard, but in some cases it might be the side or front yard) and arrange all the critical rooms (living room, kitchen, master bedroom) facing the most appealing view. What defines a “good” view? Think trees, yard, patio, flowers. The neighbor’s brick wall does not qualify.
  • Windows.  The more the better, the bigger the better.  I have never heard someone say "Wow, that window is just too big."  As a corollary, I have heard people say, "This room feels dark; I wish there were more windows in here."    
  • Let’s talk about internal views. What the heck is an internal view? I’m referring to what you see when you’re looking from one room into another. You look through a doorway and get an inviting glimpse of a lovely painting or a dresser or a window or archway. I also call these “sight-lines” and I give them the utmost importance. Here’s a classic example of what NOT to do: don’t place the toilet so you can see it straight from the bed in the master bedroom. There’s no excuse for that! If I was an Architecture Professor, I would give the plan an “F” based solely on that one mistake.
  • Hallways. Make ‘em wide: think 4 feet or even a little more. ‘Nuff said.
  • Basements. A basement is something that might be nice to have, but not at the point of sacrificing the main house. What I am talking about here is the insane tendency to dig out a basement and then this makes the house so high from the outside that it is necessary to put 12 stairs to get to the initial front entry way! That’s crazy. No one wants to walk up a flight of stairs while carrying groceries (or a small child) trying to maneuver their way into their home every day. Two stairs, seven stairs, that might be acceptable. Not 12, certainly not 20.
  • Formal dining and living room. These rooms are a relic of an era gone by; most people don’t live this way. Do yourself a favor and make a large open family-friendly kitchen/ eating area/ family room. It is silly to waste space on a formal dining room and then 5 feet away have another table that the family eats almost all their meals in (called the breakfast nook or eat-in kitchen). Why? What purpose does that serve? Honestly, it just makes it so the owner has to buy more furniture. I would much rather have one large family room then two small rooms (living and separate family room).
  • Stairs.  Do you know why we have adopted the characteristic of placing the stairs near the front door?  It dates back to the times when the grand old houses had servants' quarters on the ground floor level while the wealthy owners used the second floor primarily for the main entertaining and living quarters.  There would be a grand entry and the guests would immediately go upstairs.  The stairs were welcoming and inviting and suited this purpose well.  Nowadays, most of us do not have servants and the private bedrooms are located upstairs.  In a modern home, it is a bit jarring to have a large staircase right at the point of entry ushering you into what is essentially intended to be a private space.  I think architects should make more of an effort to place the stairs in a convenient and logical spot elsewhere in the house, and not just automatically (or by default) place them by the front door.    
  • Garage entry. Please please give this some thought. If you are planning to 99% of the time come in the house through the garage, then have the interior garage door open into the exact same space as the formal entry. The space should be warm and inviting, not full of muddy shoes and sports equipment. You can easily plan a “mud-room” small hallway that leads from the garage directly to the formal entry for that purpose. What I am saying to avoid is having the garage entry put you right into the kitchen or the back of the house or a completely separate space than where guests come in.  Shouldn't the owner get to enjoy the nice areas of the house too?   
  • Kitchen. Unless the ceilings are 20 feet high, the upper cabinets need to go to the ceiling. Islands are great. Pantries are divine. Butler’s pantries are gifts from heaven. Buy an undermount sink (this makes it so no yucky stuff accumulates around the rim of the sink). Everything below waist level should be drawers. Everything about waist should be cabinets. Plan cookbook storage (think open shelves). Install a pull-out trash so it is hidden. Splurge and get a slab countertop (not tiles)—choose granite or marble or whatever you like, but get it as a slab (no cleaning around grout lines). Stainless steel appliances are only a trend (just sayin'). 
  • Electrical outlets. Sure, code dictates how many, but a smart architect takes it to the next level and places the outlets in the appropriate spots: an extra outlet in the bathroom by the counter for a hairdryer, or maybe a double outlet where a desk will probably go.
  • Closets. Lots of 'em.
  • Eastern/ Southern exposure. Think about the sun. You can change where you position the master bedroom, but you can’t change that the sun rises in the East. Does the home-owner really want the sun coming in their bedroom window every morning at 5:30 AM? This actually goes for all the rooms; consider the pattern of light at different times of day and different times of year. This matters.
  • Built-in shelving. This should be standard. It’s great to have somewhere to display your grandmother’s china or all your books, and it’s even better when this has been planned from the get-go.
  • Trees.  If you are lucky enough to have them, please don't cut them all down.  Even if you plant replacement trees, it will take several years for them to grow very tall.     
  • Patio/ Deck/ Screened-in Porch. Outdoor spaces provide extra living space in good weather. They should not be ignored.
The main problem I see with new construction is that an architect designs a generic floorplan and applies it to a lot without giving any thought to the specific site.  Adjustments should be made for the lot.  Every house should be tailored and customized to its surroundings.

Floorplans need to make sense. As an architect, you should imagine walking through the space, rounding every corner, looking out every window. See yourself in that blueprint.

("Master Of Vision")


  1. I have to say we are different in some regards to the house you are describing. I simply adore formal living and dining areas, it brings me back to the special family moments that always occur in these places. Big family dinners in the formal dining room where mother teaches/corrects our dining etiquette. The holidays with the christmas tree set up in the formal living room, all the decorations sparkling from the snow-reflected sunlight streaming in the windows.

    I am not a fan of newer construction where the entire first floor is becoming a uni-room. I know you wrote "Do yourself a favor and make a large open family-friendly kitchen/ eating area/ family room". A place when you walk into the house and you have to see the kitchen room open to the informal dining open to the informal great room with no walls dividing these places. Don't get me wrong MOV I am all about open spaces, but there is something to love about rooms that have their own function separated from each other. Walls help to seal off excess noise and cooking odors from the kitchen. I notice the problem most acutely when I am talking to someone on the phone in one of these uni-room houses and I can hear EVERYTHING in the background from their TV in their "open" family room or computer games in their "open" office area.

    Mother always said she loved our childhood home because with six children, the walls shielded her from the constant shrill we gave off. She could retire (do people still "retire" to somewhere?)to her formal living room to take up a book or chats with friends. After dinner, Father would read in the easy chair in the living room every night as well to relax from the work day.

    But almost every other point you mentioned I love!! I think it is our kindred Virgo spirit :-)

  2. Mudrooms and tons of closets are a necessity! My "open" floor pan has neither. With 4 boys, I'm kicking myself for ever saying that a mudroom was "wasted space."

  3. Michael, I stand corrected. Thank you so much for your valuable comments. I think what I should have said is that I am not a fan of the eat-in kitchen when a beautiful dining room table is 5 feet away. Also, if you do have a living room, please remove the velvet rope (and Bouncer!) and let people go in there!


When you write a comment, it makes me feel like I won the lottery or at the very least like I ate an ice-cream sundae. (This has nothing to do with the fact that I did just eat an ice-cream sundae.)