If you ask any architect, from the most fuddy-duddy and conventional to the most cutting-edge post-modern genius, what a good building should deliver, most likely you’ll hear the same poetic-sounding response: “Commodity, firmness and delight.” It sounds good, but what does it mean? And, more importantly, why should you care?
First things first. “Commodity” means that a structure should function as the client intended. “Firmness” means it should be well built, and “delight” means it should enhance your life. This simple truth was first stated by the Roman architect Vitruvius about 2,000 years ago. Along with nearly everything else in antiquity, it was forgotten during the Dark Ages and rediscovered during the Italian Renaissance. Since then, “commodity, firmness and delight” has been the guiding principle for every successive generation of architects.
With home-building, and every other kind of construction, delight is the most engaging aspect of this architectural trinity, but commodity and firmness are equally important. On your third or fourth visit to a model home that was “delightful” enough to bring you back for another look, check out how well and how long this house will work for you, advised several architects who have designed many projects for production builders. If the kitchen is impossible to work in, it won’t matter how much eye candy you have in there. If the roof leaks or the rooms are drafty, you won’t care about the gorgeous landscaping in the backyard.
Randy Creaser, an architect in Washington, D.C., said that one place to look at carefully is entrances. The formal entry with the smashing view may make you feel great every time you come through the front door, but what will you see everyday when you come home and enter from the garage? Piles of dirty laundry as you pass through the laundry room on your way to the kitchen?
A more functional – and, in the long run, more delightful – alternative is a garage foyer. A place where family members can drop off the stuff of their workday lives, it serves as a transition space from “out there” to “in here.” Creaser said that features in a garage foyer might include a cabinet for mail sorting, and, depending on the size of the household, a coat closet, storage for sports equipment, cubbies for backpacks and a bench. Beyond its practical aspect – siphoning off all the stuff that comes into the house before it gets strewn around the household’s main living areas – Creaser said that the storage also brings a calming sense of order to every homeowner’s busy life.
As with a more elaborate foyer at the front door, a view and natural light in the garage foyer will soften your return at night and enhance your departure in the morning. But if such elements are impossible, a place where owners can put a piece of art or a framed poster can provide a tonic effect.
Creaser suggests that prospective home buyers also look into lighting, the “L” word that builders often overlook. Big windows flood most models with natural light, amplified on cloudy days with artfully placed table lamps and optional recessed ceiling fixtures. Once the sun goes down, however, the same spaces may be grossly under lit without all the builder’s optional lighting extras and even then the lighting may be unsatisfactory. The only way to know for sure is to visit the model at night.
The kitchen lighting is also worth a close look, Creaser said. In the base priced house it is generally atrocious – a florescent ceiling fixture that gives everyone in the household a cadaverous look. To get the full spectrum of color so that food looks inviting and faces look natural, Creaser recommended halogen fixtures, which some builders offer as an upgrade. Creaser also recommended under-cabinet halogen lighting to illuminate counters used for food preparation.
Margaret Rast, an architect in McLean, Va., said that many home builders offer room additions that sound great in theory but in fact often don’t add much. For example, an extension of 4 feet can make a smallish family room more comfortable. But when the extension is 6 or 8 feet, which sounds like a lot more room for not that much more money, it will change the shape of the room, making it harder to furnish and offering only marginal additional utility. If only the walls are moved outward and the ceiling is not raised, the space will feel unpleasant to boot.
A sunroom off the kitchen on the back of the house, another option that many home builders offer, might seem to be a better bet. But, most households end up using it as a breakfast room, Rast said, and the breakfast area in the basic house becomes a useless “no man’s land.” If the builder had carefully thought out extra space options when the house was designed instead of treating them as what she called, “an added profit center plopped on afterwards,” these options would provide a real benefit and you wouldn’t end up with two breakfast rooms, for example.
In Rast’s opinion, the most useful and flexible space option is a second-floor room created by finishing off the garage attic. It doesn’t affect the scale or proportions of an existing space as the family-room addition often does; it’s not redundant like the sunroom; and, in her experience, every household can use an extra room away from the hubbub of the major living areas.
Carson Looney, an architect in Memphis, Tenn., observed that while builders have altered floor plans to fit contemporary family life, most have somehow overlooked the fact that most households own more stuff than ever. “The buyers move in and then they scream for storage space,” Looney said. He advised that on that second or third trip though the model that captivates you, check the storage. “If it’s not enough, can you easily amplify it? If you can’t, are you prepared to part with half the things you own before moving in? If not, are you prepared for what you will have to live with clutter-wise?”
Looney also sees what he calls “bumps in the middle of the night” – shortcomings that might not hit you even on your fourth visit to a model, but certainly will if you buy the house and move in. For example, the angled walls that make spaces in the artfully furnished model feel bigger and more open can be hard to live with. Such rooms are hard to furnish, and you may find yourself weaving in and out around your tables and chairs as you go from room to room.
James Kettler, who is both a registered architect and a home builder in the Washington, D.C., area, heads for the kitchen when he visits furnished models because a quick look will tell you if the builder and architect really thought through how someone would live there. Is the kitchen functional in all the ways that the average household needs it to be? Can you prepare a meal easily without criss-crossing the kitchen 15 times from refrigerator to sink and stove and back again? Is the clean up easy or a chore? Can you store all the foodstuffs, cooking ware and dinnerware you have? Will you be able to help with homework and kibitz with dinner guests while you prepare meals? If the kitchen is, as Kettler put it, “just a big box with a refrigerator, sink and oven,” it will not provide commodity, firmness or delight, and you should continue looking until you find all three.
Questions? Queries? A home-building story that you’d like to share? Katherine Salant can be contacted as www.katherinesalant.com.
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