Ten years ago when I began writing this column I did a total immersion in the world of production home building. In five days I visited more than 40 townhouse and single-family projects in both stand-alone subdivisions and planned communities spread out across the Northern Virginia suburbs.

On my last day I stopped at a townhouse project in Reston, Va. After touring dozens of furnished models with similar plans, similar decorating schemes with similar colors, and minimal landscaping, this one was different. The moment I walked through the front door, I could sense the hand of a designer at work. Instead of the desultory backyard that I had come to expect, a large framed view of a wooded area behind the project beckoned me forward. As I took in the rest of the house, I noted that the eat-in kitchen, dining and living room areas were arranged so that no matter where you stood or sat, you could see the trees. 

Not only had an architect designed this house, there was also a supportive home builder client who understood the value of integrating interior and exterior spaces. I later learned that this particular builder was so committed to design and “getting it right” that he and his vice president for construction once tore down an entire house at the framing stage and started over again.

The Reston project was a revelation. While there are plenty of humdrum production houses out there, there’s also a sizeable number that aren’t. The real question is, what differentiates the ones that rise above the rest of the pack?

When I asked Santa Barbara, Calif., architect Barry Berkus, one of the grand old men of American residential architecture, to deconstruct the architectural experience for the average buyer, he waxed poetic.

“As you move from room to room,” said Berkus, who has been designing houses for production builders for nearly 50 years, “the architecture should take you on a journey to a destination that has a point of interest. When the architect incorporates a few ‘unpredictables’ like an unexpected view or window or well-crafted detail, you, the ‘traveler,’ will experience more interest, more emotion and a rising anticipation of something ahead.

“Your eye goes on a visual journey quicker than you can walk,” Berkus continued. “If the house has been well sited, it will pick up the changing light patterns and shadows as the sun moves across the sky. These will also draw you through the space to a ‘destination point,’ which optimally will include a distant view or an intimate garden close at hand.”

Picking up on the notion of “the journey through the house,” McLean, Va., architect William Devereaux, who once worked for Berkus and who, I learned years later, designed the Reston project, described it in more prosaic terms.

Windows and Views: When you walk into a room with a window and a view, you will automatically turn towards it, Devereaux said. The room will feel bigger, and you will feel better. Conversely, if you walk into a room and find yourself staring at a closet or a bathroom door, you’ll be turned off.

The number and location of the windows in a room also makes a big difference, Devereaux said. When there are windows on two sides of a room – and better yet on three sides if the room projects out from the house – you won’t have glare, and the room will feel more comfortable.

The size of the windows is another issue, Devereaux said. A big opening and lots of glass can make the landscape outside feel like its part of the room, but, he cautioned, it’s possible to go overboard. A window that displays a carefully framed view of a tree that is 12 feet away is often more pleasing than the larger, unedited view provided by the sliding glass doors that have become an expected feature of every family room.

The journey doesn’t always have to terminate with a window and a view, Devereaux added. A piece of art or even a framed poster hung in a modestly recessed niche will highlight a space. Nor does the view always have to be to the outside. Interior views from one room to another will make the space where you are standing in feel bigger, while beckoning you to explore further.

Ceiling Height: This can also affect your comfort level. Citing the eat-in kitchen/family room as an example, Devereaux said that including all these functions in one space is sensible for most households. But, when they are lined up in a 12-by-30-foot space with an 8- or 9-foot ceiling, he observed, “You feel like you’re in a bowling alley.” To solve this problem, builders in the 1990s raised the ceiling of the family room area to the roof to create a two-story space. The result was an eye-popping wow, but “many people felt lost in the gymnasium volume,” Devereaux said, and the noise generated there could be heard throughout the house.

The most pleasing solution is to raise the ceiling of the family room area only 2 or 3 feet. This differentiates the space without any grandiose overtones – it’s comfortable when 20 people are gathered for New Year’s Eve or spouses are quietly reading at the end of a long workday.

Comings and Goings: Where you enter a room will also affect your sense of it. For example, if you walk into the family room on an angled corner, you’re at the farthest point from the opposite walls, so the room will seem bigger. Put windows and views on those opposite walls and, as noted above, you’ll find yourself moving forward into the space without even thinking about it. When you move the entry point to the middle of the long wall of the family room, however, the same sized room will feel smaller.

Spatial Organization: When nearly universally observed building conventions are altered, you’ll notice something is different and it may be for the better. For example, in the conventional eat-in kitchen/family room, the kitchen is at one end, the breakfast area is in the middle and the family room is at the other end. Switching the kitchen and eating area is an unexpected but sensible improvement, Devereaux said. Moving the breakfast area to the far side of the kitchen creates a quieter place to eat or do homework. Placing the sink and the food prep areas so that these face the family room provides a “command post position” for a parent supervising very young children and an opportunity to participate in the conversation when other adults are there. Conversely, the standard kitchen sink location under a window that overlooks the backyard can be isolating for the person working there.

Landscaping: Landscaping will definitely enhance your enjoyment of your new house, but it’s not enough to plant a tree or two and build a patio, Devereaux said. You need to apply scale and proportion, just as you would to any indoor room, and everything needs to be scaled up because the same-sized space will feel smaller outside than inside.

For example, an 11-by-11-foot room can be a nice-sized den, but the same-sized patio will seem barely adequate. If the patio is part of an enclosed courtyard space, you’ll want a 5- to 6-foot-wide planting bed between you and the fence so you won’t feel hemmed in. If the patio overlooks a backyard, you’ll still want the planting bed because you’ll feel more comfortable with an enclosing buffer between you and all that grass.

Questions? Queries or a home-building story you’d like to share? Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.

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