I got me some weeds

Posted on December 27, 2009
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My sister T went out into the fields, collected dead weeds and twigs and things of that nature, and arranged from that a pleasing token of nature’s winter beauty. My apartment has always looked stark and unadorned, and–well, if I say it that way, it doesn’t bother me. I have never wanted my living space to look adorned, per se, nor decorated; both of these words imply to me a preoccupation with the prettiness of the adornments. I am not thinking of baubels and bling. I mean those non-functional things that suggest history, an emotion or memory; things that tell you that it is not only a body living in this place, but a soul also.

There are lots of people decorating with profound bits of still life, I suppose, but when I was younger I actually went outside during the winter months. It might have been just to feed one of the animals, or might have been to sled down the snow-covered hill, or sometimes just to walk through the fields and woods; but I remember those melancholy husks of weeds on the tattered edges of winter’s barren expanse. They are the ruins of expired dreams; they are dormant promises.

I said to myself that I could not get any dead weeds for my apartment because I live in town and I am surrounded by houses, where the only dead things belong to someone else. But this is a weak excuse, and I knew it. So today I walked over the bridge to the wrong side of the tracks, the most depressed pocket of a tired small town, toward the one lane bridge that connects two parts of nowhere, and I got me some dead weeds, to make my aparment more cheerful.

A House of High Regard

Posted on November 12, 2009
Filed Under The Fitting House | 2 Comments

I like the looks of this house a lot. I like the wide front porch which throws a welcoming arm out over the drive in a carport. I like the suggestion of a tower. I like the detailing, which doesn’t get carried away into total famboyance. I like the screened gazebo connected to the house by a short screened porch; where else would you sleep in the summer? (This gazebo is not visible on the real estate listing, and you can only just glimpse it from the street.) I even like the color pretty well; it’s not perfect, but in a way it’s better for it, since a house painted just the perfect color is a haughty, intimidating thing.

I don’t like it’s situation. It’s in a known flood plain and in town. I’d like it better up on a hill in some woods.

Shadow and light

Posted on March 19, 2008
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One of the most frequent concerns addressed in advertising for new construction or renovation is the abundance of natural light. Large windows are ubiquitously advertised and unquestioningly desired. While natural light is good for your health and aesthetically pleasing, some questions should be asked about the large-window craze.

The first question to ask is why we feel the need for great large windows. Presumptively, it feels dark. But is it dark? Or what causes the sensation of darkness? Every day at work in the morning I’m supposed to update a series of numbers on a large whiteboard. If I don’t get them all done before the meeting begins, I finish up in the second half of the meeting when they turn on a projector and turn off the lights. As I am standing there writing on the board someone flips the switch, and it becomes too dark to write. Yet it brightens back up, without anyone turning on any lights; my eyes adjust to a new threshold of ambient light, and it no longer seems too dark to write.

That example is a little trite. We all know about our eyes adjusting to darkness. But similar effects apply in more nuanced situations. In my apartment kitchen, there’s a window and door with a glass pane on the same wall. When I first arrived, I felt that the side of the kitchen where I put my table was hopelessly dark, and I figured I would probably have to buy a lamp, even though there was a set of florescent bulbs installed in the ceiling, or do something else to relieve the darkness. I planned to hang a mirror on the wall, a larger mirror I picked up for free; but it desperately needed to be refinished and I procrastinated at that.

It happened that before I got around to addressing the darkness of that corner, I got a curtain for the glass in the door for privacy’s sake. After that I did not feel the need for lighting the table end of the room so much. I did not notice any dramatic difference, but the sense of gloom on that side of the room abated.

There are two possible effects at work. First, the curtain diffuses the light, scattering it into the room in more directions than it would stream in through clear glass. Second, by dimming and diffusing the sunlight as it enters the room, it reduces the impact of the direct sunlight and lowers the threshold of lightness, like turning off the lights in the meeting, so that the somewhat dimmer side of the room does not contrast as sharply with the light beaming in from outside. Opening up the blinds over the window somewhat negates this effect, letting stark daylight into the far end of the room (although with the door still shaded and with greater space between the extremes of light, the contrast is not as severe as it was). Thus, while I occasionally open the blinds to enjoy a full blast of daylight, keeping all the windows at least partly shaded gives a brighter overall feeling to the room. The light does not simply seem brighter; I always know that there is brighter light being obscured. But sharp, strong light creates a sense of urgency, where diffused light allows more relaxation and does not make you feel like you must choose between being in the light and in the dark.

The house I grew up in was built long before wiring was common, and retrofitted with an outlet per room. Lighting was in short supply. Also, with a steadily rising number of kids, none of whom respected the niceties of things, lampshades fell victim to intentional and collateral damage. So we wound up with a lot of bare bulbs trying desperately to light rooms by their own strength. Over the years wiring was upgraded and added, so higher wattage bulbs were used and gradually more were available for service. Yet I’ve noticed that no matter how many watts of illumination there are, you can still feel like the room is too dark. I think that’s not really darkness per se, but the harshness of the light. In fact, when some of those stick-on LEDs were purchased to light a dark corner, people complained they were too harsh and made the area feel darker.

The psychology of light and dark goes beyond the actual amount of light, beyond even contrasting levels of light. I have noticed that I feel the need for light more urgently when there is clutter, while dimness is more acceptable when things are neat. A bunch of clutter under strong light looks like work in progress, while a bunch of clutter in the dark looks like forgotten junk. So simply shining brighter light on something that needs to be taken care of may help us feel like something is being done about it.

Another thing to consider before building a glass wall is what you are going to do on the interior side of the wall. I am always going to want more window space in my living room than in my bedroom, yet I like a window even in the bathroom where privacy is a top priority. The size and proportions of a room will affect the size of the appropriate windows. But there are some things I think are extreme no matter what room of the house you are considering. There’s a style of “log” house that makes one gable-end wall of the house nearly all glass, right up to the peak. I don’t want that much glass in any room of my house. In the lobby of a public building such glazed vistas may find their place, but I want my house to feel like a home and to have a protective presence around me. When I want to be wide open to the outdoors, I’ll go outdoors. That’s another thing I think feeds the craze for plenteous glass. We are spending more and more time indoors, in front of electronic devices and surrounded by air that’s neither too cold nor too hot, and we find ourselves lacking in exposure to the outdoors. But windows don’t really remedy that. To enjoy nature you need to be out in it, simply observing it through glass is not a whole lot better than watching the nature channel on TV. Attempting to compensate for a secluded life by putting in big windows I think is a antidote without lasting effect.

Personal preference will still play a role in how much glass is satisfactory. I think, though, that many of the people who want “lots of natural light” in their homes will find the bedroom better served by modestly sized windows on two or three walls rather than a wall of glass; or they may find that generous light in the living room and kitchen leaves them perfectly happy with fewer and smaller windows in their bedroom. Contrast and context are extremely important in our appreciation of light, and without adapting to these variables we can find ourselves going from “too dark and claustrophobic” to “overexposed and out of place” without attaining the sense of comfort we were looking for.

The ideal house is not for everyone

Posted on March 4, 2008
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This post introduces a series of musings on the design of housing. It’s likely to be a very intermittent series, but I have ruminated intermittently on house design for so long that the series will probably go on even over extended dormancies. In the short term I may make a spree, depending on how long the mood lasts.

Each time I have contemplated a floorplan in my mind, I have become more convinced that you cannot design a house properly without knowing all of its circumstances. Who is expected to live in it? Where exactly will it be located? What is the basic lifestyle of the inhabitants? What is the owner’s philosophy on maintenance, energy use, possible expansion (especially versus moving on and moving up), and obligation to fashion (frequency of renovation)?

Consider the kitchen sink. I usually start my sketches with the kitchen sink because it is the center of gravity for the entire house (metaphorically speaking). Both the sink and the stove are key working spots for a mother, and placing a window over the sink that overlooks a children’s play area gives a convenient way to keep an eye on the kids. A window facing west could provide sunsets with the supper dishwashing, while a window facing east could give dawn sun to the breakfast table (depending on where that is situated). If children will be doing chores at the sink, a window also provides an excellent opportunity for daydreaming and distraction, especially if it looks out to where other children are playing.

Considerations of playground oversight and sunrise and sunset depend upon the site of the house. Either east or west from the house site might stare directly into the neighbors, or some industrial complex completely lacking visual appeal. Features of terrain may exclude the eastward or westward facing from serving as a play area.

Then there is the matter of how the sink is situated relative to the stove, the refrigerator, and the primary working surface. The usual arrangement in new construction is a triangular setup (with the work surface closely associated with one of the other points) that lets the cook move from any point to any other quickly and efficiently. In my family, though this is not an adequate way to consider the arrangement. There are fourteen people in my immediate family and no automatic dishwasher. With the resultant extended time spent preparing meals and cleaning up afteward, there is dishwashing going on at the same time as meal preparation. If any baking is going to be done, it usually must overlap on some other meal preparation. Just the traffic to the refrigerator for drinks and snacks has to be considered as well.

In this day and age a couple with no children might have an expansive kitchen with several sinks and stoves so they can entertain large parties. Many of those large parties might not exceed the nightly supper sit-down in my family’s house. From that perspective, it is more than obvious that a proper kitchen for our family would require at least two sinks. But there is no point designing an airport for a family to live in, or a million dollar home for a family without a million dollars. I probably would stretch for the extra sink, and attendant plumbing and space, if I had a chance to rebuild the kitchen, but what about that extra stove and extra refrigerator and on and on? The cost would add up quickly. We have already proved that our family can get along with one sink and one stove, and at some point economy must temper convenience.

More than that, a central concept of my philosophy of house design is that multiple uses of space make it more valuable. Not merely more economical, but more meaningful to the inhabitants. Moving from space to space with every change in activity makes a person feel like part of a factory or of a theatrical production. That is part of the reason why people living in new homes with many rooms may find those rooms aren’t used for the purpose they were intended. The sense of home requires being in a place, and being in a place means not leaving it, even down the the level of rooms.

I think this is also part of the reason for the fad of open floorplans. People have come to believe that different activities require different spaces, but then they feel isolated. Then they think that removing the walls will cure the problem. Sometimes it helps and sometimes it leaves people even more marooned in oversized spaces.

Even if the multipurposing of space is widely accepted, or accepted by everyone I would design houses for, there is still no satisfactory way to generalize about how space will be used. Our family home-schools the children. As the children grow older and study more independently, they often retreat to their own space (it would be inaccurate to say their own room) to study. But the younger children all need to be generally within earshot of Mom or other help. It makes sense for us to use the meal table for a communal desk, a study hall, and to keep all the school books and supplies in the same room. A smaller family with kids in public school could probably use the kitchen table for eating and for homework, but for us the kitchen table is needed for meal preparation and cleanup during the same time that schoolwork must be done, so a separate dining room table (there are actually two) is needed even when multipurposing the space.

For a while I tried to imagine a houseplan that was the ultimate of adaptability, a plan that could be easily extended from a two person residence to a fourteen-person residence. As I thought of the different manners of living that would have to be accomodated by such a plan, I realized that there are house designs I think are horrid because they are poorly designed, and there are those I think are horrid because they are well designed for a life I would not want to live.

Sarah Susanka has been making a name for herself by designing houses to reflect the personality of the client rather than the personality of the architect. Her work inspires me much more than the work of Frank Wright or Le Corbusier (though Susanka is clearly influenced by Wright). Her spaces derive their significance from their suitability to use, not their expression of an artistic manifesto. Yet I think that even if someone were to give her the necessary money, she could not design a house for the way my family lives. Even within an ethos devoted to personalization there is not the range to meet every person’s ideal.

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