A home that works on all levels (comfort, function, economy, aesthetics) is a highly prized commodity in all cultures. How these requirements are defined is a function of personal values, location, income, and intended use. Here in Maine, it ranges from a simple, unheated summer cottage to a high performance year-round home or condominium.

Or it could be an existing home with “good bones” that deserves to be updated to reflect the lifestyle of its occupants and the economies of the times.

House design is not just about whether it’s Colonial, Contemporary, Shingle Style, or Greek Revival. It’s all about craft and imagination working together to produce something that speaks to the owner’s needs and operates on multiple levels: how it looks and how it works. Good design is practiced at every level. From the door handle on the front door to the proportions of the windows, Design is thoughtfulness and caring expressed in built form.

Not everyone is “design literate” enough to pull together and communicate to a builder all of the details necessary to build or remodel the house of their dreams. Architects are the “strange ones” among us who live, eat, and dream buildings. They are either trained to think this way and/or they have an innate ability to do so. It’s a combination of problem-solving and artistic inspiration. I remember, as a kid, drawing futuristic houses, carving out rooms in the sand at the beach and imagining spaces in my mind. It was the start of something that’s lasted all my life: a love affair with shape, volume, color, and light.

Another characteristic of most architects is a tendency to be well organized and detail-oriented. If you have someone in your house who squares off the towels in the bathroom towel racks or lines up his/her pencils with the edge of the table, then they either need counseling or they are might be frustrated architects.

Do you like to sketch or doodle on the margins or “build stuff”? Do trips to the hardware store rank up there with taking the spouse out for a movie? Or do you compulsively watch the Home and Garden TV shows like “Property Brothers? Ayuh, you’ve got it bad.

So how does someone, like an architect, “put it all together” and come up with a design or remodel for your house? There are a number of analogies for how this is done. Here are three of them.

House design

House Design as a Baker’s Recipe

When you bake something, the ingredients are not just thrown together. The best culinary efforts are carefully considered combinations of specific ingredients plus artistic inspiration that always adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s been said that house design is the same way. It’s more than a collection of bedrooms, a dining room, family room, and a kitchen. It’s an “inspired recipe” of natural light, a sequence of interior volumes that reflect patterns of living, walls that contain windows and doors in the right proportion, built-in furniture, and much more. But just as ingredients alone do not make the perfect loaf of bread, it takes experience and creativity to successfully combine the elements to fit your needs, your budget and be aesthetically pleasing.

Baker Analogy

House Design as “Frozen Music”

“Talking about music is like dancing about architecture” Frank Zappa.
Despite what Frank says, here goes:
In musical composition, there is a main theme or melody line made up of chords, or “sounds”. There is also rhythm and harmony. Architectural compositions can be seen as having a similar construct. Solving an architectural problem often relies on theoretical or abstract notions of rhythm, harmony, and the notion of main themes or “melody lines”.

As an example, hallways can be seen as the spaces “in between” rooms just as there are “rests” sometimes between notes in a musical score. Or a series of exposed floor joists can set up a “rhythm” or repetition that is echoed by the columns that support them at distinct intervals much like the beat of a base drum supports the melody or main theme.

Frozen Music

House Design as a Pattern Language

This is my personal favorite. Architecture, much like a spoken language, can be seen as a series of patterns or “phrases” that are used to express an idea. But instead of words, this visual vocabulary identifies patterns that are used as building blocks or essential elements for the design of a house. Christopher Alexander, a professor at UC Berkeley is the author of a very influential book, “A Pattern Language”. It distilled the design of buildings into underlying patterns of behavior and form that are universal to all homes that are great places to live. His theory was later illustrated in an outstanding book called “Patterns of Home, The Ten Essentials of Enduring Design” published by The Taunton Press.

The book offers the 10 most critical patterns for creating a successful house design. They come from careful observation about how we inhabit our homes. I recommend you either buy the book or get it from your local library.

The essential patterns in the book are:

Pattern language

1. Inhabiting the Site –

This pattern was explored in my Blog entry titled “Site Evaluation for a New Home”. It included: solar path, views, site access, garage placement, outside space for gardens and activities and privacy. Siting the house is a balancing act among these competing patterns. But getting the feel of where the sweet spot is will make all subsequent decisions easier.

2. Creating Rooms, Inside and Out –

The outside space should be considered as “rooms” just as the interior spaces are. A house design that uses the site as an extension of interior space will feel “at home” on the site. The shape and careful placement of the exterior space, such as decks, porches, and gardens will reinforce the connection to the interior spaces they share an edge with. This is very different from the leftover spaces that are a result of ignoring this relationship.

outdr. room

3. Sheltering Roof –

The shape and orientation of the roof is another very basic element of a house. It shapes perceptions both inside and out. It should be a reflection of how the spaces are organized and inhabited. The shape should also respond to exterior forces, such as solar path, admitting light and diverting water.

sheltering roof

4. Capturing Light –

Allowing natural light and warmth into living spaces is critical to their ability to draw people into them and to make them want to stay. Light from at least two directions is needed in the major living spaces.

“When they have a choice, people will always gravitate to those rooms which have light on two sides, and leave the rooms which are lit only from one side unused and empty.
 This pattern, perhaps more than any other single pattern determines the success or failure of a room. The arrangement of daylight in a room, and the presence of windows on two sides, is fundamental. If you build a room with light on one side only, you can be almost certain that you are wasting your money.”
Christopher Alexander, “A Pattern Language”


5. Parts in Proportion –

The spaces that make up a house need to be thought of as having their own identity but also as part of something bigger. The aggregation can take many forms. These include: one simple volume with everything inside it, a central volume with balanced or asymmetric smaller spaces, a sequence of spaces strung together, or a series of rooms around a courtyard to name a few arrangements. Regardless of the arrangement, the parts need to add up to something that is visually coherent.


6. The Flow through Rooms –

From the moment one approaches the front door of a house, one gets a sense of whether or not the house is welcoming. Is there a covered, protected entry to stand under while waiting to be received? Upon entering, is there a space that allows you to take off your coat and boots? As you continue into the house, is there a sequence of public spaces to more private spaces? Are there views through the house or a source of light that draws you in?


7. Private Edges, Common Core –

A successful design provides a combination of communal spaces and private spaces. The communal spaces are characterized by lots of natural light and support family activities involving two or more people. But the house must also offer private areas for quiet singular activities. Circulation through the house should be at the edges of these spaces and not through the middle. A good test is to furnish all of the floor plans with tables, chairs, sofas, and built-ins in order to verify that a room or alcove’s intended use is not interrupted by the flow of moving from one part of the house to another.


8. Refuge and Outlook –

There is a basic instinct to be protected while at the same time having a broad view of one’s “kingdom”. This can take the form of perches, window seats or alcoves that are cozy while at the same time providing views of a larger world outside.

9. Places in Between

These are the spaces that provide a transition from inside to outside. They are protected with roofs but are open to the surroundings. Examples include: front porches, balconies, and breezeways. They allow the homeowner the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors without being immersed in it.

10. Composing with Materials –

A successful house design uses materials to reinforce what has already been conceived in plan. Exterior materials may appear substantial and monolithic, such as a stone base, in contrast to less substantial walls covered in shingles or clapboards. The size of a roof overhang and whether or not there are corner boards in a contrasting color to the siding can have a dramatic effect. The interior of the house could be a composition of simple, smooth or textured planes of white or bright colors. It could also be a rhythm of columns, bookcases, and coffered ceilings. There are fundamental themes (such as wood floors throughout that promote the flow of one space to another) and secondary themes (such as wall color and ceiling finishes) that work together to make the house a unified composition.


So there you have it: house design as seen from three different viewpoints. If it sounds too abstract, then look at your own surroundings and see where these patterns are present (or not) in your own home. You will be amazed to see that, when they’re there, they make a big difference. It may answer the question why, subconsciously, you like or don’t like some things about your house.