Here are four variations of an inglenook, shown in the same family room of an existing house, ranging in size and amount of enclosure.
This is the perfect time of year to enjoy a warm fire, and one of the coziest fire areas of all is the inglenook, which is defined as a corner or nook near a fireplace, often with seating. Inglenooks combine the physical and visual warmth of a fire with a sense of shelter, a place to sit and look out into a larger room yet feel somewhat separated. This is what Sarah Susanka in her book "Home By Design" and Christopher Alexander in "The Pattern Language" refer to as alcoves. They note that we are psychologically attuned to feel comfortable in a place where we can survey what is happening around us from a well-protected place.
Here are four variations of an inglenook, shown in the same family room of an existing house, ranging in size and amount of enclosure.
The nook above is the least "inglenook-y" of the four examples. It defines the space around the fireplace with small seats and windows on either side of it. It takes up minimal space, and yet it declares itself slightly separate from the room in which it sits.
Inglenook #2, above, occupies the same amount of space as the previous inglenook, yet has a more sheltering feel because of the lowered ceiling above it. Light sconces are a beautiful and practical touch which help to define the space with light and create a cozy place to read.
Image #3 above begins to look more like the traditional inglenook, with seats facing one another. It requires more space than the previous two examples and includes built-in shelving flanking the fireplace.
Inglenook #4, above, has the most "inglenook-y" character of all. Not only does it have seats facing one another, but it is further defined by columns, glass-faced cabinets and a dropped ceiling. Extending the wall between the inglenook and the door all the way up to the ceiling would further enhance the sense of shelter.
Building a home on a flat property is pretty straightforward; building on a property that slopes gives you the opportunity to be more creative in the way your home meets the earth. Below are five ways you can deal with your sloping site.
FLATTEN THE SITE
I believe that this is the least desirable way to deal with a sloping site. If done poorly, it can make the site look awkwardly unnatural, and the additional grading adds to the cost of the project. It's better to find a home design that works well with the natural lay of the land, or find a different site that works well with the home design you want to use.
CHANGE THE GRADE SELECTIVELY
Changing the grade selectively can help a home fit into its site and even improve the site if done thoughtfully. In the example shown in the two photos below, the east (left) wall of the garage is nestled into the side of the hill, but the grade between the garage and house was lowered for better access to the back yard. Stone retaining walls make the regrading possible and are a beautiful visual feature as well.
MODERATE SLOPE - USE 1/2 LEVELS
A moderately sloping site may mean that there is less than a full level change between front and back. In the example below, the great room (on the left) is a half level below the front entry (on the far right), reflecting the natural grade change between front and back yards.
STEEPER SLOPE - WALKOUT BASEMENT
The walkout basement is a common feature of houses that have a steep enough grade difference that the back side of the house is a full level lower than the front side of the house. Below are two examples.
HOUSES THAT DO THEIR BEST TO TRULY BLEND IN: BERMED AND EARTH-COVERED HOMES
The two homes below take the concept of fitting into their sites even further. In both cases, much of the building sits below the natural grade.
The first home shown below is heavily beamed into the earth. Driving up to it from the road, there is little more than roof visible until you walk down the exterior steps to the front door at the side of the house. (Photos 1 and 2. Home designed by Owner)
The third photo shows a home that takes this idea even further. It is not only bermed into the side of the hill, but the lower level roof is underground, rather like a Hobbit home. The retaining wall on the left side of the photo is actually part of the lower level roof, and the strip of lawn in the middle of the photo sits on top of the lower level roof. (Home designed by architect Herb Gausewitz)
As I work more and more with Baby Boomers, I find that a lot of people are interested in features which will make it easier to stay in their own homes as they age. Whether currently suffering from decreased mobility or wanting to be prepared in case they find themselves wheelchair-bound in the future, my retired or about-to-retire clients are often asking for handicap accessible bathrooms, particularly showers that can be used by someone with limited mobility.
The photograph above shows a shower that I designed for a couple who were experiencing health problems, which they expected to worsen over time. The picture shows that an easy-to-use shower can be beautiful as well as functional. This type of shower, with no threshold and a tiled floor surface that runs continuously from the bathroom into the shower, is the gold standard when it comes to wheelchair-accessibility. The shower floors are sloped to the linear drain running down the center of the shower. In this case, the shower is long enough to contain most of the water inside without the use of a shower curtain. Smaller showers will generally use a curtain to keep water from splashing onto the floor outside the shower.
In this case, the shower was designed to be used by someone sitting on the built-in bench (visible in the middle of the photo). The hand-held showerhead is on a bar so that it can be adjusted up or down to suit the needs of the user, and shower controls are located within easy reach of the bench. This shower also contains a rain head showerhead on the ceiling for the benefit of standing users.
A light within the shower is a good idea, particularly for seniors, who need more light to see than younger people.
Although relatively easy to build into a new bathroom, this type of shower is trickier to build when remodeling an existing bathroom, since the existing floor joists need to be cut or replaced in order to create a recess for the shower. In remodeled bathrooms, a prefabricated fiberglass handicap accessible shower is an alternative which can be added without changing the existing floor structure, although these generally have a small (approximately 1") lip to keep water in the shower, which makes it a little more difficult to get into and out of the shower.
If a homeowner wants to be prepared for the possibility of future grab bars but does not want to install them now, blocking can be added behind the shower wall, making it easier to install bars later without damaging the walls.
The floor plan above shows a bedroom addition that I designed recently which considers every aspect of the the spaces to make them more wheelchair-friendly. The shower can be used either from a wheelchair or a stool. The large interior dimensions of the shower stall make it big enough to roll a wheelchair into, but the user could also transfer from their wheelchair onto a stool placed inside of the shower, keeping the wheelchair dry. The shower controls are located so that they can be accessed outside of the shower, making it possible for the user to turn the shower on without getting wet while waiting for the water to heat up.
Other accessibility features shown in the plan include grab bars at the side and back of the toilet, a 5' diameter clear space within the bathroom and the closet for ease of turning in a wheelchair, a sink and counter with space underneath for a sitting person to pull up under them and the location of switches and outlets so that they can be reached by someone in a wheelchair. In addition there is an exterior door and ramp directly from the bedroom to the front yard.
The interior elevation above shows the following wheelchair-friendly features: leg room under the sink, a "comfort height" toilet with grab bars, a mirror and electrical outlet located just above the backsplash and a linen closet with lower-level drawers.
Occasionally, a client will tell me that they are considering general contracting the construction of their home project, usually in order to save money by eliminating the general contractor's fee. This is not a decision to be made lightly.
The General Contractor Role
What does the general contractor do? He or she oversees the entire construction process from start to finish; schedules and coordinates the work of the subcontractors, checks their work and pays them; orders materials and schedules their delivery at the appropriate time; and procures the building permits. Often the general contractor is also a carpenter and will do the bulk of the construction work with his or her own team: framing, siding, roofing, putting up drywall, etc.
He or she has built relationships with subcontractors over the years and knows which ones are dependable and do a good job. Subcontractors will be more responsive to a someone who general contracts for a living than to a do-in-yourselfer because they know that if they do a good job, it may lead to future work.
How much can you expect to save by general contracting a project yourself? General contractors often charge a percentage of the project construction cost, commonly 10%. So if you do a stellar job of managing your project, you could save up to 10%. On the other hand, the project could very welll end up costing more than it otherwise would have, due to mistakes, oversights, time delays and work that must be redone.
Are You Suited?
Before you decide to take on this role, ask yourself the following questions:
Having a complete and detailed set of construction drawings from an architect can help. However, a good set of drawings is no substitute for competent general contracting.
Think through this decision carefully before deciding to be your own general contractor. The risks are many, and the potential for costly mistakes is great. Don't underestimate the value of an experienced professional for this job.
Passive Solar Design
Many of my clients express an interest in passive solar design for their home. Passive solar design utilizes the free energy of the sun to provide heat for a building. Typical features of a passive solar home include:
Now there's a relatively new concept in environmentally friendly building called Passive House. Passive House (called "Passivhaus" in Germany, where it began) is a rigorous voluntary standard for constructing buildings which require ultra low amounts of energy for heating or cooling. The energy savings is achieved through the following means:
There seems to be a strong interest in wood-burning fireplaces and stoves in new homes and remodeling projects. Although not practical as the primary heat source for a home, wood-burning fireplaces and stoves can supplement the heat from a furnace and provide a cozy gathering spot and focal point for a home. There are different categories of wood-burning fireplaces, and it's important to understand the differences in order to choose the right type for your home.
TRADITIONAL MASONRY FIREPLACES
Traditional masonry fireplaces, like the one shown above, have been around for centuries. They are typically built of firebricks and concrete masonry units covered with a more decorative material such as stone, include a masonry chimney and are custom-made on site. They are beautiful and give homeowners a good view of the fire. However, they are also relatively expensive to build, require structural support and are not very energy efficient, since as much heat may go out the chimney as is created by the fire, which can also create drafts. Because the fireplace is open to the room, careful consideration must be given to how air which rises up the chimney will be replaced in order to prevent depressurization of the house and potential backdrafting of equipment such as furnaces or exhaust hoods.
ZERO CLEARANCE FIREPLACES
Zero clearance wood-burning fireplaces are pre-manufactured units built of metal, which are typically built into a wood-framed surround, which can be finished with stone, tile or drywall. They are called zero-clearance because they require minimal clearance to combustibles such as wood studs and drywall.
Within the category of zero clearance fireplaces, there are fireplaces which have the open feeling of the traditional masonry fireplace and others which are designed to be very energy efficient. The EPA-certified fireplace shown in the photo above has a gasketed door which prevents the fireplace from pulling air out of the room, so that the heat it produces stays in the house. A high-efficiency zero-clearance fireplace such as this is more expensive than a zero clearance open fireplace but will do a much better job of heating the house and will be much less likely to create backdrafting of equipment (when operated with the door closed). The model above, the Topaz by RSF, has a built-in fan to push heated air into the room.
WOOD BURNING STOVE
Another option is a free-standing wood-burning stove, such as the one above. Although these commonly have a very traditional look, there are some very modern-looking versions, such as the F370 by Jotul. Because they are generally operated with the door closed, wood burning stoves tend to be more efficient than open fireplaces.
Learn more about traditional masonry fireplaces and zero clearance fireplaces and wood stoves .
Technology has made huge changes to the practice of architecture in the 24 years since I started my journey in architecture. When I first became an apprentice at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture in 1991, many of the Taliesin Architects had already made the switch from drafting by hand to using CAD (computer-aided design) to produce 2-dimensional drawings. Since then, tools for "drawing" buildings have become more and more sophisticated, and 3D modeling of design projects is becoming more and more common. I draw all of my projects in a CAD program called Vectorworks, which creates a 3D model of the building. This enables me to give clients a more realistic sense of how the completed home will look and feel, reducing the risk of building without understanding the final product. Clients typically receive a 3D exterior aerial view and 3D interior aerial views of each floor. The model includes furniture, cabinets and some trim but is not complete in every detail. More detailed or extensive modeling, including walk-throughs of the home, is available as an additional service. Here are two videos showing an animated exterior flyaround of a home that I designed, as well as a 360 degree view of the great room.
We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, but there are still instincts that we carry within our DNA which were designed to protect us, and which influence our perception of the natural and manmade environment around us. Here are some examples of psychological traits which shape our perception and enjoyment of the space around us:
1. WE LIKE TO FEEL SAFE AND PROTECTED
We want to be able to see what is going on around us, but we also want to feel protected. Since we can only see in front of us, and in a limited way to our sides, we like to have a solid wall or other object behind us, so that someone can’t sneak up from behind. Therefore it’s generally more comfortable to sit in a spot where our back is to the wall and we can see what’s around us.
2. WE LIKE VARIETY
Perhaps variety makes us feel more secure because when some things stand out, they are more obvious, which means that we are more likely to notice them, and noticing things allows us to protect ourselves from them if they are dangerous or make use of them if they are useful.
Variation creates contrast, and our senses are stimulated by contrast. Therefore a low ceiling in one space makes the high ceiling in the adjoining space seem higher. Small spaces that feel enclosed allow us to better appreciate large open spaces. A mixture of brighter and darker areas within a room or building is more attractive than one uniform level of light. A space visually divided into two spaces through the use of partial walls or changes in floor or ceiling height is more interesting than one large undivided space.
3. BUT WE ALSO LIKE ORDER
Variety is good, but we don’t like chaos. Order is relaxing. Order helps us make sense of things - we’re able to “read” and understand the pattern in something which has an order. Underlying order makes a building intelligible and makes it easier to navigate our way around.
4. WE HAVE A NEED TO BE CONNECTED TO NATURE
Exposure to natural light is important to our sense of wellbeing. Studies have found that children who have windows allowing light and views into their classrooms perform better on tests than those in classrooms without windows. Employees who receive natural light and views in their workspaces are more productive than those without. Hospital patients who have views of trees and grass from their windows heal more quickly than patients with no views of nature.
5. WE NEED PRIVACY
We all feel a need for privacy and the desire to protect that privacy. In homes, we typically see a hierarchy of public to private spaces, with the space immediately inside the entry door being the most public space in the house, and the bathrooms and bedrooms being the most private spaces. In between are livings rooms and other spaces into which we invite friends but not necessarily strangers. Sheltered spaces which are visually connected to larger spaces allow us to enjoy the sociability of being near others while still feeling some privacy.
6. WE LIKE A LITTLE MYSTERY
It’s intriguing to catch a little glimpse of something partially hidden in a space beyond. Our curiosity is piqued, and we are drawn into the space in order to see what is there. By creating rooms which are only partially visible from one another, we excite our curiosity and make our buildings more interesting.
Given that my husband and I are both architects, it’s not surprising that one of our favorite things to do on vacation is to see architecture. Earlier this month we took a trip around Lake Erie that included Detroit, Toronto, Niagara Falls, Buffalo and Cleveland.
Here are some of the architectural details that I captured on camera during our trip. Details are to architecture like jewelry is to an outfit: they add richness and interest.
Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
CRANBROOK ART MUSEUM
Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
THE DARWIN D. MARTIN HOUSE BY FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT
Buffalo, New York
To anyone who is considering building a new home or remodeling an existing one, I recommend reading architect Sarah Susanka’s Not So Big House books. A “not so big house”, by Susanka’s definition, is not necessarily a small house, but one with a floorplan inspired by our informal lifestyle, where each room is used every day. It combines the beauty of a large house with the efficiency of a small one, favors quality of design over quantity of space and is filled with special details that express our values and personalities.
Sarah’s first book, The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live (written in 1998) struck a chord with readers, and she went on to write six more books in the series, including books on remodeling, interior details and landscape design. For an introduction to the NSBH concept, I recommend starting with her first book, mentioned above.
In addition to the Not So Big House series, she wrote a book in 2004 called Home By Design, which explains 27 principles of design which are the building blocks of well-designed homes. Principles include “the process of entering”, “ceiling height variety”, “light to walk toward”, “pattern and geometry” and “point of focus”. Home By Design is a great book for anyone who wants understand some of the tools that architects use to design beautiful spaces.
Susanka’s books are beautifully illustrated, very accessible and can be applied to any home, regardless of style. Her website is www.notsobighouse.com