Friday, December 11, 2009

The not so big house

Having purchased a house in Ottawa to renovate, the next task was to come up with ideas for what we wanted to do with the place. We had already thought in very broad terms about adding more space, either by going up and adding a story, or going back with an addition. However, we needed to drill down into some of the details of what type of functionality we needed.

For inspiration, we turned to the usual array of renovation magazines that can be found at any local bookstore. However, two of the most useful books that we read were Sarah Susanka's The Not So Big House and Creating the Not So Big House (Susanka has published a suite of related books on not so big remodelling, design and even on how to live a not so big life).

Susanka's philosophy appealed to us. While we did not know what the house should look like, we knew we wanted to stay within the character of the neighbourhood, which is dominated by 1950's era 1 1/2 story victory houses. Some of these homes have since had a second story added on, and many have had additions built on the back or the side. However, the neighbourhood's character is one of smaller houses with larger setbacks on streets where large mature oak trees provide the initial visual impression, and not rows of starter castles. Thus, rather than build a new McMansion on the site, we opted to build something smaller, more tasteful and with better space utilization. Susanka argues strongly that it is better to try and reduce the amount of space and instead put the extra money you saved on space into fine details and better quality finishings. But, to achieve this, the function of each space must be clearly understood.

Susanka's books are great for helping to understand how space is used in a home. In fact, part of the reason she wrote these books is because she felt that while people intuitively know a good space when they are in one, they lack the language to be able to describe such a space to an architect. Through photographs, illustrations and extensive descriptions, Susanka discusses basic concepts such as shelter around activity, interior views, doing double duty, a place of one's own, visual weight, framed openings, and spatial layering. Through discussion of these concepts, she takes the experience of living in a house from mere shelter to the art of dwelling. For example, if you arrange a space so that you can look along the diagonal, from one corner to the opposite one, you are looking along the longest view available, which makes the space feel larger than it actually is. Or, for example, if you use a series of openings and surfaces, implied or otherwise, to subtly break the perceived space into segments, it will have the effect of making the space feel larger.

Susanka's ideas are based in large part on an earlier book called A Pattern Language. Despite being published in the 70's, the ideas in this book by Christopher Alexander are as valid today as they ever were. Alexander believed that the way we intuitively use space in our homes, neighbourhoods and towns can be described by a series of repeating patterns. What was really weird is that when I read A Pattern Language, I instantly recognized some of the patterns in the way I live, even though I had not consciously attempted to arrange my living space in any of the ways described in the book. For example, Alexander describes the concept of a Children's Realm - a space occupied primarily by children in which, when adults enter they feel like visitors. In fact, our kids have carved out a space in the living room where all their toys are that is bounded on three sides by walls and chairs. Even though there was no conscious effort to give them a separate space, a new space has emerged in which adults definitely feel like visitors. A pattern language is a great book to read if you are thinking of designing a new home or undertaking a major renovation where everything will be gutted down to the exterior walls.

After reading A Pattern Language, I started to think about the types of patterns of space I would like to see in our new house. As you can see from the graphic below, they are centred primarily around three concepts: Common area at the heart, the couple's realm, and the children's realm.

Then we came up with a conceptual floorplan for the house that tried to take these ideas into account.

At the end of the day, this plan is only conceptual to allow us to organize our thoughts and to convey to the architect the scope of the project we want to undertake. However, we are very much looking forward to seeing what ideas the architect comes back with.

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