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Sunday, 13 December 2009


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Mike this is one post of yours I must pass on to my wife. She too loves to shop for homes (as a pastime), and you seem to share almost all of the same ideas about those homes. Mostly I just live in one. As long as it meets my needs then fine. The barn/garage and land on the other hand I can obsess over in a similar fashion.

Discovery Channel did a program/series awhile back on new home technologies and it was thoroughly fascinating, leading to the same flights of imagination. Obvious innovations were things like alternative energy sourcing, geothermal, PV solar, etc., as well as LED lighting, ethernet controlled electrical switching, etc. But also interesting were new insulation technologies and construction materials, such as AAC concrete panels and materials both more efficient and robust than standard wood-frame housing. Now if you can get it to all be energy and carbon-neutral despite all the power usage, you've really got something there.

A friend who worked for the home developer, Toll Brothers, said that they once offered a choice of 'free' upgrades on a project: double the regular R-value attic insulation or crown molding in the living/family rooms. Not a single buyer chose the extra insulation.

You described my house, and I love it. No two story "open to below" rooms, no cathedral ceilings (although the ceilings are high - 12' - which is nice and makes it so it does not feel like I always need to stoop), no "open-floor" plan, kithcen, living, dining rooms all separate, and regular size bathrooms (It's better to spend less time versus more time in that room). I'm afraid, though, these features only exist in older (pre 1960) houses nowadays (mine is 100 years+), and as wonderful as they are, maintenance is at least a continuous part-time job in any older home.

Anyway, it's probably a good thing I'm not going to build a house—it would be so unfashionable that it would be hard to resell!

I don't know, Mike...you make a lot of sense to me :-)

A query. You say: "Studies have shown that most people do most of their living in just 640 square feet, regardless of how big their houses are."

Do you have specifics about these studies? I am in the process of buying a flat (in London, UK, where such a surface is positively luxurious), but still, I am interested. I have googled 640 feet, to no avail... Thanks

Feeling as you do about houses, you might enjoy Sarah Susanka's book "The Not So Big House..." and others in her series. She's got some great ideas along those lines. Regarding the windows you'd like to get rid of, could you just put bookshelves in front of them?

Mike, welcome to the Tiny House movement. I'm in fair sync with what you describe. I've got a 7 year plan to leave Los Angeles and build a 'dream' house I own mortgage free. Like you, I don't want too much house, and design is key to proper space utilization. The one thing I may go crazy on size-wise, is a dedicated home theater/music listening room. I think 640 feet suits me just fine.

For folks interested in small houses, a good starting point is http://tinyhouseblog.com/


Sounds like you'd appreciate at least some aspects of the house Robert Heinlein built for them in Colorado Springs (article at http://www.nitrosyncretic.com/rah/pm652-art-hi.html ).

I, on the other hand, am a huge believer in great big tracts of indoor land. I'm never going to have a house anywhere near big enough. I'm mostly with you on the windows, though, for the same reason. Plus, windows tie the inside lighting to the outside sun position, which I find makes it hard for me to get enough sleep often.


Most of the current trends in housing are absolutely ludicrous at the moment. At the moment Australians are building the largest homes in the world. Near me we have builders advertising starter homes for first time buyers with 7 bedrooms (4 of which are doubles) 3 bathrooms, home cinemas, home offices, family room, entertaining area blahdy blahdy. Now this is a starter home what will the original purchasers aspire to later?

Let's forget about the contentious issue of global warming for a moment, but lets look at the resources used to make such a home. What about the costs of maintaining such a house? The Bureau of Statistics says the average number of occupants is 2.5 people. That's a lot of energy and resources used and tied up in providing housing for such a small number of people.

My wife and I have always been fans of small houses. We also like having small rooms. I think it was Da Vinci who said small rooms strengthen the mind and large rooms weaken it. We also like separate rooms to work in, have walls to hang on art on. As for book shelving well that's problematic as we are always running out (and another mega order due from Amazon any minute). Small homes are easy to keep clean, more efficient to cool, easier to furnish and decorate. Yes it's another case of less is more.

Crikey, I thought I was the only one like this.

Totally agree about wall space, btw, atlhough I am also a fan of natural light over artificial, so like a lot of glass. Skylights?

Actually, two-story rooms with lots of windows go excellently with books. Many older private libraries are designed as a two-story open room with the walls on both stories covered with bookcases (sometimes two or three deep), and the ceiling filled with windows to give plenty of light without stealing any wall space. The open area in the center is the reading area, where it's brightest.

Dear Mike, I've been following TOP for ages and was tempted many times to comment. It never happened and the first one will be about houses and shopping-go figure!
But this post was me talking! Spot on! I confess to liking "open-plan" but to a certain degree. They way you put it though changed my mind right away.I promise to buy that house if you ever build it. I honestly do.
Regards, John

Mike, I feel like the shopping love child of you and Ctein - I do all that stuff!
I just did a quick count up of my strawbale studio (in which I reside and love) and guess what; when I did the conversion from metres it came out at 640 feet! (Am I a genius or what?)

There's lots of glass on the north for winter sun, and the walls are hopeless for hanging stuff - so it'd be a pretty useless space for you I reckon. But I wonder if 640sq feet is the new 'Golden Mean' - or the new black!
Dennis F.

My parents are heading into their twilight years and decided to buy a McMansion this fall. I visited them a month after closing.

I detest the McMansion concept. I could not be gracious and congratulate them on their purchase (or say anything nice about the place).

You gave a similar outline to what I detest about these houses. However, my biggest complaints are reserved for the developments that contain these McMansions. The concept of having a barren landscape as far as the eye can see dotted with these huge boxes is what really gets my goat.

A few, well placed, tall deciduous trees will provide fantastic shade in the summer (allowing people to be outdoors more of the day). If you add to that mix some well placed evergreens (especially if you live in a very flat place), you get a great windbreak in the winter.

I don't know how apropos this is or not, but Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) detailed his process of doing something similar to what you describe (designing the Superefficiency house) on his blog in several posts over the last year or so. It's been quite interesting reading.

"Anyway, it's probably a good thing I'm not going to build a house—it would be so unfashionable that it would be hard to resell!"

No it wouldn't. What you describe is the cutting edge of the new developing trends in house design. Take if from an architect in the business.

I just have to laugh. We did a big remodel, violating most of your design principles. The place looks nice, but all of the drawbacks you pointed out are certainly true. We did opt for a small bathroom and that worked out perfectly.

A house built on your design principles might be difficult to sell for the same reasons that some of the minimal camera designs you've described might not sell. However I think a purchaser of either your ideal house or ideal camera would appreciate the ingenuity.

Smaller is better but like the library
with a whie ceramic throne it has limited use.

A house of about 1100 square feet, laid out to your engineering plans, now that is practical.

Cathedral ceilings are good for one or two
singular purposes. A room below where your
music reproduction system requires a proper workout
a fully operational theatre pipe organ with at least 16 foot pipes; not one these plug-in
computer organs which although nice aren't real IMO.

Point - Counterpoint. Don't know if it's 60 Minutes, or the Onion.

Land in the UK is in short supply so large houses are a luxury item for most of us. Your average new build in the the UK tend to be pretty small and cost as much as a large house would in the states. Mine's about 900 square feet. I think you'd soon run out of wall space!

I've been buying a Mini Cooper for at least five years. I haven't even driven one yet. But I know after a few weeks or months it would just be a car. I probably would enjoy driving it more than my 15 year old one, but not that much more. I don't have to worry about my current car. it gets a scratch or spill on the carpet: no big deal. But in my Mini I wouldn't be too happy. Anticipation is sometimes more fun than the ownership.

But I will get a new camera soon. Just give me nice 24mm equiv. on a G1 and I'm in. Although built-in stabilization would be nice.

Finally, I detest huge bathrooms. A bathroom is not a place where I want to go hang out. A bathroom is a utility room. No reason for them to be tiny, but 8x10' is overkill, and the current fashion for bathrooms the size of living rooms is absurd.
Mike, you are a man. If you want the diametrically opposite perspective, try - as I did - marrying a Russian woman. And then, for the full effect, visiting your wife's old friend, a successful businesswoman, single, who specified and had built for herself a very nice house. In this house you can see the sort of bathrooms a Russian woman regards as necessary. They were all very nice, and the main one was indeed about the size of the living room. None of the Russian women present seemed to regard this as in any way overkill.

Your house sounds just right to me. I'd buy one (as soon as I get these 4 kids out of my house!). I need bookshelf space, I don't hang out in the bathroom, and I am not in love with paying for climate control or endless hours of cleaning. I hate open floorplans. They just require cleaning every inch before people come over, because you can't stash things away temporarily.

Bring on the small, superefficient house.

"I'm afraid, though, these features only exist in older (pre 1960) houses nowadays (mine is 100 years+)"

Indeed--my favorite home designs are typically from 1890-1930. The actual homes are getting old, but the designs are sometimes very intelligent and elegant.

Lots of closet space, too, another thing that goes in and out of fashion.


Funny you should mention bathrooms being "utility room[s]." The Hebrew word for it is bet shimush which translates roughly as "house of usefulness," or utility, to be more idiomatic.
Also, there's a tremendous piece on TED by Barry Schwartz (you can see it on TED.com or on my blog: http://obblogato.wordpress.com/2009/05/02/594/) in which he talks about the tyranny of choice and how, with our surfeit of choice, we are more miserable than when we had fewer buying choices - he suggests we find a way to share our excess of choice with those (in the developing world) who have a choice deficit.

"I hate open floorplans. They just require cleaning every inch before people come over, because you can't stash things away temporarily."

EXACTLY! I had a loft in Chicago with an all-in-one main room. Not only did the kitchen have to be clean, so did the office. The place looked splendid when it was all clean and neat, which was...almost never. From now on, the most important feature for me of a kitchen or home office will be...a door that closes so visitors can't see they're a mess.


Mike the messy batchelor

"A query. You say: 'Studies have shown that most people do most of their living in just 640 square feet, regardless of how big their houses are.' Do you have specifics about these studies?"

I believe I read that in a book called Building An Affordable House by Fernando Pages Ruiz. I'm not entirely sure if I'm remembering that correctly, but I think so. At any rate it's a very interesting book, written by a real builder who practices what he writes about.


I totally align with you on dreaming about building a house, and that it should be small - but we have found that our current 800 sq ft is too small for two people with significant projects (I photograph and do electronics, my wife knits and sews, and we both love books). 800 sq ft plus work rooms would be about perfect.

I disagree on your stance on windows. That may be partly because I grew up in a house where the entire south wall of the dining and living rooms were windows overlooking a river valley. I miss that still. I also like somewhat high ceilings - there's something psychological about them, like my ideas can soar higher. Low ceilings make me feel oppressed.

Two-story houses can be a necessity in less land-rich areas like large parts of Europe, but the two-level open area is a waste (but if it's windows all the way up you have *lovely* light!)

I understand your concern about wall space, but modern windows can actually be about as energy efficient as walls, plus you get solar heating, especially if you add in stone flooring in front of them to retain the heat for a while. Well-placed large windows are a valueable asset in a low-energy house.

Lastly - if we are ever going to make a house (which is one of our long-term plans), we will make it the way we want it, rather than trying to optimize resale value. It's like the difference between making photos that you like and photos that you think will sell - except for the house, you know you'll be the buyer.

I like high ceilings too, but only downstairs. Upstairs I like 7-foot ceilings with some sense of the roof behind it--I stayed in a Colonial-era Inn once with 6 1/2 foot ceilings upstairs and it was charming, very cozy.

Of course the main factor militating against high (and to a lesser extent low) ceilings is the 8' standard size of drywall.

Two other interests of mine are sight lines--i.e., what you can see from where--something seldom even mentioned in house plans; and degrees of privacy. I had a girlfriend once whose ex-husband was oppressively prying, and he would peer all around her apartment when he came to pick up their child, because the door opened right on the living room / dining room / kitchen area. Before he arrived she would have to run around and clean up and remove things just so he wouldn't see them--even though he only stood at the door and wasn't invited in. She and I considered buying a condo together, and the one we looked at had an entry hall next to the garage, with a flight of stairs leading up to the main floor. It would have meant her ex could have been invited in to wait for his daughter without being able to see any of the living space or anything about our lives. All my sketches since then have featured successive "layers" of privacy, starting with a formal "sitting room" inside the front door where visitors could be invited in without being able to see the rest of the living space. I definitely dislike plans where the front door opens directly on the living room.

The biggest problem in house layout now is that the front door is vestigial--the de facto main entry to the house for the family is from the garage or carport or wherever the car is parked. This has been handled in a variety of ways by modern architects but there doesn't seem to be much agreement yet on a really robust solution. Certainly nothing that has settled into custom. Strangely, perhaps, I don't even carry a key to my own front door!

Another factor I'm very conscious of is noise--who hears what from where, when. It's really lamentable that builders of apartments, for example, so seldom seem to take this into account. (And it's yet another downside of open plans. Any small house in which readers or music-listeners and TV-watchers have to co-exist is particularly ill-suited to an open plan.)


See if this fits anyone:

Hazardous Pioneers: Urban Survival - I lived in a van down by Duke University

"About a grad-school student who chose to live a Thoreau-esque life by living in his van, essentially so that he didn't have to take out a loan."


One further thought.

2 feet times 8 feet by two feet (all numbers rounded up). 24 square feet give or taken.
The size of one burial casket. And if you are going to be reduced in size before planting, consider something small and square, it's difficult to hang pictures on the round wall of a burial urn.
In short plan your disposal before planning
your living. That way you have some idea of your future.

Not to say your burial casket can't be used as a coffee table until your time is nigh.


The 4'x 8' drywall panel does not drive the room wall height as the panels are properly hung sideways to span as many wall studs as possible for strength. The panels also come in 12' lengths. There are panels that are 54" wide so when hung they make a 9' wall. That is what we did when we built our home and it works nicely to keep the worst of summer heat away and still feels cozy in the winter. We have so many windows in our house it feels like a terrarium, but we live on a nice 12 acre lot and love feeling like we are outdoors all the time. We controlled the site lines inside with walls and outside with plantings.

We designed and built our house in 2003-2004 and I blogged about it. Here is the project link from start to finish if you are interested.

We have discussed many times the small and large mistakes we made (not being architects) but all in all it was an enormously satisfying experience. When it is really windy or rainy I still wait with bated breath for that first drip...

Lars: building to optimize resale value is a mistake (unless you're a developer!); but sufficiently outre ideas can make it impossible to finance in the first place (through conventional mortgage channels).

Mike: I hate 7 foot ceilings. I can't quite put my elbows on them, but close. I once walked into a finished basement room where a ceiling fan was spinning right about at the same level as the bridge of my nose. I think I like open-plan because I like large rooms (I've never lived in anything open plan). If I could have large enough rooms and still separate them completely, that might be fine. Noise isolation is definitely important, and at least as important in single-family homes as between apartments. I never thought of TV and stereo noise as competing, though, because the concept that you might have more than one of either one, or that they might be in different places, is totally foreign to me.

Wow! Excellent documentary....

A distinctly "fashionable" house (in my terms above), but undeniably beautiful. And quite a project.

You would have used up my entire net worth by about the time the floor joists went in. [g]

Thanks, that was fun.


Our house was built in 1979. It's a good house to live in. It has vinyl siding, steel doors, double pane glass ... it's drafty, heats up like crazy in summer thanks to a gambrel roof and no shade, but not too bad to heat & cool. It has little personality of its own; only in how we use it.

Friends have an 1800's house that's a maintenance headache, cold in winter, gets mice, bugs. But it's a great house to photograph in :) Many of my best photos of our friends & kids were taken in that house. Some of it is decorating, some the charm of the house, some the lighting ... everything about the feel of it is different from ours. (I think it has lower-than-modern ceilings while ours are standard).

Morden Park Tudor Estate Brochure-The Exhibition

This is the house I live in, well almost we have the terrace version (row house in North American speak) I scanned this plan from the original brochure which the lady across the street lent me. She has kept it since 1937 when her father bought the house from the developer. She has a "Kingston" The whole plan is designed to maximize the amount of space in the "living" rooms. As a house it works well, though bathing two young children requires some careful management. The small kitchen is problem though as you do feel a bit locked away as family life happens elsewhere. Help in the kitchen is often a double edged sword as you maneuver around each other. You should checkout the "Frankfurt Kitchen" if you like small kitchens. The tiniest kitchen I ever saw was that in 2 Willow road, Erno Goldfingers house in London. The kitchen is a windowless cupboard off the dining room. Speaks of a completely different time.

Not to be a wiseass, but I think you're right about the problem of selling the house -- and face it, you may someday have to sell the house, if only to pay the nursing home bills. I once talked to Sarah Susanka for a while, and she's quite an interesting architect -- but while her books are about the not-so-big house, they are quite elegant and expensive. They're just small.

What you're doing in your mind is building a psychological construct that would fit you, and a limited number of others guys, using "guy" deliberately. Essentially, a monk's cell, very efficient, both physically and in terms of work. If you have to mix a woman into the equation, either as a companion or a potential buyer, you'll find that many want both a *large* bathtub (not a whirlpool, but large) and a separate, free-standing shower. Difficult to do in less than 8x10. They may also want a slightly larger entertaining area and kitchen than you seem interested in. Women are generally the status-keeping half of the population, and somewhat bigger (but not McMansion) generally is an indicator of status. YOU may not be interested in that, but many people are, hence the sales problem.

My personal biggest problem is with expansive bedrooms. In my view, bedrooms are for beds, and clothes closets. My perfect bedroom is one that it tucked up under the eaves, so you can hear rain on the roof, and make use of awkward space. Like other people here, I also need a work room.

I once spoke to an academic architect who said that one reason older houses look so idiosyncratic to us is that they didn't use 4x8 panels. If you wanted a room to be eleven feet long, or nine feet tall, it was just another board, more or less. Most houses now have an underlying arithmetic involving 4-foot squares...There is a very large older house on a hillside in Chippewa falls, Wis., that must have twenty windows visible from the road, and no two are the same...don't see that much anymore.

True, but it's not a problem, because it's going to stay imaginary. I'm not actually going to build a house.

I actually like large tubs too, being a large human. And one completely non-standard thing I would do in a new house (and might even do in my real one) is to raise the counters and sinks another three or four inches. My theory is that counter and sink height are designed for 5'4" housewives in 1950, whereas I am 6'2". Shoveling snow doesn't hurt my back as much as doing dishes does, because I have to lean down to the sink at just exquisitely the exact wrong angle.

The huge bedroom is another weirdness of modern fashion. I've always had problems with sleep, so I'm at least conversant with sleep science and pathology. One of the standard recommendations of sleep hygiene is to do nothing else in a bedroom except sleep and sex--no TV, no reading, no exercising, etc.--just sleep. For that, you should have a bed and a little room to move around in. You don't need 600 square feet.

The same girlfriend whose apartment I mentioned above had a *huge* bedroom. The extra space was all used for storage (which the apartment was short of room for). I swear, sleeping in her bedroom felt exactly like sleeping in a storage room! Very odd. It was a poor apportionment of space all around, done for status and sales appeal but not for living.

In most plans I look at, I imagine the master bedroom as the office. The need for a workroom might be specific to a home officeworker like me (and you, I presume), but it's an emerging modern need that the housing stock hasn't quite caught up with yet.


P.S. Sarah Susanka's houses aren't even very small!


We like small houses also, about 800 or 900 sq. ft. would be great as long as we could have a storage building in the back yard that was about as big as the house and was climate controlled. Storage is our problem.



I live in a house exactly like you describe but it was built in 1985. However, it definitely lacks the charm of a 1930's house. My wife and I hate the current trend of cathedral ceilings, Palladian windows and open floor plans. Those houses will look very dated in 10 years not to mention if trends keep going towards being more green, no one will want them. As for old houses having more closet space, my wife grew up in an 1897 house in Kentucky that had barely any closets because taxes at that time were determined by the number of doors your home had. More closets meant more doors and thus, higher taxes.

I play your building game with cars instead of homes. I mainly want light weight. My ideas that are starting to be done are: solar-powered fans to keep cars parked in the sun cooler (the Fiskar Karma is supposed to have these); hydrophobic window coatings like the hydrophobic lenses on sport sunglasses to eliminate the need to use Rain-X; and mesh seats like the Hermann Meyer office chairs you see everywhere. I think mesh chairs would save weight, increase rear leg room since they are thinner and would keep me from having a sweat soaked back in the summertime. I keep waiting for lighter cars because they mean better gas mileage, quicker cars, and better agility. The very lightweight Lotus Elan is still considered one of the top driving cars ever and it's 40 years old. See evo.co.uk for their greatest driver cars ever- the Elan finished 6th. A Lotus 7 based Caterham finished 4th. Those are some old designs. (I'd like an Elan even more if a 60's era Diana Rigg came with it!)

http://www.evo.co.uk/features/features/240343/top_10_greatest_drivers_cars.html>Evo's top 10 drivers' cars

I have been shopping recently for a new 35mm camera. I have a Canon FTbn which is great except that the mercury battery that came with it will die sometime soon and I think the zinc-air batteries are a bad solution and I'm not confident changing the meter settings to a silver-oxide battery will work 100% of the time. Carrying a light meter with a 35mm camera seems to defeat the purpose of 35mm film (small cameras).

Here are what I want out of a 35mm camera:
- Manual focus
- Small metering area
- I want it for black and white film (probably rules out 80s Canons since Canon lenses seem to lean to being best with color film)
- No mercury battery requirement
- I have no need for aperture or shutter priority
- I want to stick with one 50mm lens until I learn more about what my style is (if I move back a lot before shooting, then I'll get a wider lens and I'll go with a longer lens if I move in a lot.

People may think I'm crazy but I love the act of manually focusing and taking pictures. I even may not like a Contax Aria because it advances the film for me (I don't know because I haven't held one). A Leica R fits the bill but I don't have that much money to spend. Used Nikons are even expensive for me since they hold their value so much. KEH has a Canon F-1n and it is $300, which I think is too much for a defunct lens line. All my past reading has been about 60-70s cameras so I have no idea where to turn for a great, newer manual focus camera without mercury batteries. Maybe I should just look for a used Cosina Bessaflex thread mount but the rarity of that probably keeps the price up. I don't know what the heck to get but I like the act of reading about it. It's very frustrating and fun all at once! I don't trust opinions on forums (too many biases) so I don't go on those to ask. Since shopping is so much fun, I love reading your posts on older film cameras and lenses, Mike. It feeds the shopping bug.

"Storage is our problem"

Some people think storage is everybody's problem; some people think it's the primary reasons why houses have gotten so much bigger since 1946. We all have so much more stuff and we need a place to put it all.

I'm certainly not immune....



Great post. Thanks for making me realize I'm not the only one who feels this way about housing.

I've always hated McMansions, huge bathrooms the size of my living room (drives my wife crazy when watching home shows on TV), master suites the size of apartments, etc. I'd also throw in the ridiculous kitchens that are so popular today. I have several chef friends and the majority of them actually prefer the corridor/galley style where the prep and cooking areas are parallel and fairly close to each other.

Fortunately, my current house is pretty good. Smallish Cape Cod (~1600 SF), full basement for storage, partial attic, no real open design features. Too many windows to be really efficient - but most everything else is pretty close.

- Marty

Too many people want a single structure to solve all of their needs. In my fantasy "house", I have additional structures to supplement my core home.

I have a three season solarium attached to the side of my house as a "showcase" space for entertaining. I have a heated finished "shed" that serves as my woodshop/metalshop and office. I have a standard garden/tool shed. I also have a shed with a bank of south facing windows for my wife's greenhouse.

I also have a tall carport where 1-on-1 basketball can be played (with light for night play) or children can play outside on a rainy day (of course the cars would normally sit there). Further my "sheds" would be linked to my house via covered walkways. The different element share a consistent look and feel to link them aesthetically.

Again, the property is quite well wooded.

With such arrangements, the main house can just be a home.

Both Mike and Ctein need to read Barry Schwartz's book "Paradox of Choice: Why more is less". Together Mike and Ctein represent two ends of the spectrum of research/buying types that Schwartz describes:

Ctein is a "satisficer" - more utility based, doesn't do a lot of research, happy with their purchase once they've made it

Mike is a "maximizer" - does lots of research, gets frozen when it comes to making a choice (due to opportunity cost), and continues researching alternatives after purchasing


Storage is indeed a problem... but it's not the size of the house that's the issue there. It's the lack of storage facilities, and furniture and appliances that are scaled to the larger houses.

If all of our walls had built-in bookshelves, we'd need a lot less square footage, because a lot of it is currently taken up by free-standing bookcases. Those big, open-plan houses may enhance "flow" but they are lousy for storing things, because there are no walls, and no places to hide stuff that's useful but not all that aesthetic when displayed out in the open. (Like garbage bags, or holiday decorations, or office supplies.)

We have also discovered that, as houses have inflated, so too has furniture. All but one piece of our furniture is either antique, or scaled for apartments. Because we both lived in walk-up apartments for several years before moving in together, all of the furniture we brought to the household is stuff that one or two people can lug up a flight of stairs without killing ourselves. Movers always get excited when they see our household, because they can recognize the lightness and small scale of the furniture. (Later they realize that we have several magnitudes more books than it seems at first glance, and the dismay sets in.)

The one exception is a modern hide-a-bed chair. Although it is a chair for a single person, it is HUGE. Seriously, it takes up almost a third of the back room, and there is no way it could be brought up the narrow stairs of our 1880s rental house. (That's assuming we could even lift it - the steel frame of the chair makes it a 3-4 person job.)

All of the other furniture fits the house perfectly.

So it's not just the house that needs to be scaled to a more human proportion - it's the fixtures and furniture as well. Do that, and even a small house will seem both cozy and spacious and... human.

Mike, you sound like you'd be a great client … interested in efficiency and durability, a strong sense of what you want, anti-fashion (which suggests conversely an openness to reinventing the old-fashioned) and an utter rejection of "resale" as the starting point; yes indeed, a great client. And, as Daniel Jansenson writes, what you're talking about is actually what's interesting today in design.

Most of your points aren't, to my mind, as unusual as one might think. That the norms of speculative housing design and development have diverged from 'good" design (with "good" defined along a spectrum from the mundane (energy efficient) to the sublime (heimat)) is an uncontroversial understatement: items like cathedral ceilings, the fetishization of kitchens, the love of raw amounts of square footage, the usual suspects of "classy" symbols like granite, mullions or raised-panel doors (no matter how applied, plastic or fake) take the place of real thinking about what makes a space domestically satisfying.

Design for resale is lowest-common-denominator design: decisions are constantly being made against the yardstick of not just a phantom client but a phantom public. To be safe, builders pile of the square footage and other items that read well on a real estate listing, but stay away from the idiosyncratic and the truly personal. This is design by committee, and therefore not really design.

But if I were to critique your wish list, I'd say it is longer on what you don't like and not as complete regarding what you do like. That you (or I) don't like typical developer housing is fine, but a bit weak as a starting point for a discussion of how one wants to dwell. And finally, you might think a little more dynamically about your no-no list: e.g., the number of windows is much less important than what each window accomplishes in terms of light, view and space. Similarly, while double-height spaces are usually deployed merely as status symbols, a judicious pairing of something out of scale with an adjacent cozier space can be a part of a powerful narrative. (And actually, people seldom explore the flip of the double-height space, which is the lower-ceiling niche space, or lower ceiling entrance, vestibule or threshold.) Finally, lots of wall space does not necessarily equal lack of windows … but the idea of wall space is probably is a good jumping off point for exploring (common to many of my male clients) things like man cave or basement retreats.

Anyway, good design tends to be site specific, and client specific; that is, with a lot of thinking about program before even the first line is drawn.

--an architect in Brooklyn

Very fair points all (as I have come to expect from you!). I personally have decided that the notion of collecting ideas that one likes and then putting all of those into one house design (as it seems a fair number of "armchair designers" like to do) is misguided. Better to have a house with a few good ideas than one that tries to cram everything in.

I'm also persuaded that people generally try to correct the faults of their present (or past) houses with the things they most look for in their new or postulated house-to-come. So right now I would look for efficiency and better-apportioned space and dust-free-ness and please god, some natural light (my current house is a small one-story ranch house with a hipped roof that has four-foot overhangs all around. It's as if the builder was consciously trying to keep sunlight out).

But if I were to try to begin to formulate some of the things I like: I generally don't like to devote space or cost to status, although I think it's important for a house to have one really good room, as beautifully made and appointed as possible. In my house this would be a sitting room or parlor inside the entrance, where visitors could come. I like the idea of successive "layers" of privacy, culminating in the bedrooms upstairs which are the most remote from traffic/visitors/prying eyes as possible, but I also like the idea of successive layers of formality/informality...just as my house would have one beautifully finished formal room, so the more private spaces would be successively less fancy, more camp- or cabin-like. I'd aspire for the most private rooms to be built such that you wouldn't mind hanging something on a nail. I might not achieve that (the "dressing down" thing can be taken too far), but I'd be thinking in those directions. The family room would be a place that could be a mess, where kids could fingerpaint.

One thing I really like is sightlines...when you are sitting somewhere in the house, what do you see? When you are walking from one place to another, how do the spaces present? I'd pay attention to that.

I also love wood. Well, back up...I like attention to detail. I'm fond of alcoves and built-ins and corner cabinets and crown moldings and things like that. It wouldn't necessarily have to be retro, although it might pay homage to retro styles of detail.

I also have the classic modernist's affection for authenticity--if something looks like a certain material, it would have to be that material; if it looks structural, it would have to be structural, etc.

I'm also fond of small living rooms for grownups. I've been in, and lived in, too many houses that have huge living rooms, such that conversations are difficult from one side to the other, or the furniture has to be arranged in a smaller pattern, in the familiar "room within a room" arrangement. I don't see the point in that. My friends in Vermont have a *tiny* living room area crammed with overstuffed couches and chairs, and it is a great conversation pit--ten people can sit around, but they can all hear each other. So my "living room" would be deliberately small.

Does that begin to answer your question? I'm not sure how specific I could be, without taking actual sites, climates, and so forth into account...I mean, how can you design windows unless you know what's outside of them to be seen?

But my ideal house, although small and efficient, would not be cheap. In fact it might be more fancy than a typical "luxury" house, albeit only in specific ways....


P.S. I would adore to have a two-story library, with a mezzanine rampart with railings...so I'm not *completely* against double-story rooms. [g]

Yes yes ... great ideas. And agreement: it's commonplace that the first real project most architects or designers create tends to suffer from the desire to cram every great idea one ever had into it.

Good projects, by contrast, tend to be more cohesive, and limited to a few good "moves."

Another thought: the Victorians placed great importance in how a building presented itself to the public, and how the public to private sequence in a house was regulated. You sir sound a bit Victorian to me!

Anyway I'm going to Pratt tomorrow to sit on an architecture jury. I think it would be fun to propose to the instructor that they offer a studio some time called "the design of a particular photographer's house."

"Anyway, good design tends to be site specific, and client specific; that is, with a lot of thinking about program before even the first line is drawn".

Not true. Not even close.

"But if I were to critique your wish list, I'd say it is longer on what you don't like and not as complete regarding what you do like. That you (or I) don't like typical developer housing is fine, but a bit weak as a starting point for a discussion of how one wants to dwell.".

That, my friend, is your job. Else, the designer renders itself useless. Somebody pays you to design based on intuitioins, mainly. The fact of asking for a briefing is being elusive of your own work.

Not good.

640 sqf. is a HUGE space for a person to live. In fact, it is the average three and a half individuals family unit house surface in Spain.

Still, there´s something I can not quite comprehend in all this discussion. Most probably, cultural differences will be responsible for that.

No kitchen mentioned?
All this discussion is fine, but results elusive and quite misleading. I bet that much of your time is spent in the kitchen, as a social area [and I don´t mind if that kitchen is an american kitchen -the usual open kitchen with a bar on it].

There are other "space and utility" constrictions regarding how to use a house, or how to live.

For that, start searching KCAP.

I love buying too not shopping. :)

Deirdre G

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