Residential architecture is more than just making a house look pretty. Function is a critical feature of any home and must be given equal or even greater billing than aesthetics.
Residential architecture is a unique branch of architecture because clients are also the end users. When designing a large commercial or institutional building, architects have the end users in mind but rarely talk to them during the design process — think bank officers versus bank tellers or school district authorities versus teachers. Design is directed with an eye to policies and procedures, rather than to individuals. With a home, the design can be tailored to individuals.
This small room was designed to house a friend’s Civil War collection, but it is not so custom that a future homeowner could not easily adapt the space to another function.
In our office, we discuss what we call life-centered design. We work to design spaces that improve the everyday life of those who live in and visit the home. Personal life, interpersonal life and social life interconnect in a home, so it functions best when each of these areas is addressed in the design process.
Personal life relates to places in a home that are frequented by specific family members, such as parents in the master suite, perhaps one or both parents in a working office area and whoever takes charge of everything that happens in the laundry room.
Interpersonal life refers to how the family functions as a unit or, in other words, refers to shared family spaces. Children’s bedrooms may be in this category, along with areas such as the kitchen, dining area, living and family rooms, mud room, and so on. When these spaces are sized and organized to accommodate all who use them, it makes for a more calm and peaceful life.
A family’s social life will affect the public spaces in a home. This includes some of the areas listed above, such as a family room, but not areas that are unavailable to guests, such as a mud room. Understanding which spaces will hold many people as opposed to just family members helps to create them in the right sizes.
There are many ways a home functions. Some people store toys in individual children’s bedrooms and use them as play areas when friends come over, making the bedroom a social room. Others reserve these functions for a designated playroom, which keeps the bedrooms in the personal category.
It is therefore critical that a client and architect spend time discussing and analyzing how each family functions to create a life-centered design. These conversations lead to adding unique spaces and interesting elements to homes that change and improve the way people live.
It is best if these conversations happen during programming, the beginning phase of design, when architechts and clients can discuss what is and isn’t working in a home. The architect should get to know clients and their personal situations. This is the time to do a little dreaming, to discuss interests and hobbies as well as laundry requirements.
A few years ago, we worked with a family with school-aged children. The busy mom’s number one complaint was that her laundry room was in the basement. She also struggled with not having a place of her own to organize the family, pay bills and keep everyone’s schedule straight.
To address these needs, we designed a multipurpose room off the main entry. It housed the washer and dryer, cubbies and shelves, and a long counter with a space to sit in front of a computer. Because of the proximity to the front door, it also functioned as a mudroom to help organize children’s items for school.
She could work on bills while a load of laundry was running (she bought an ultra-quiet washer and dryer) and stayed up on the laundry because it was accessible and “out of the dungeon.” This nontraditional room worked well for her and helped her function better as a mother. The addition of pocket doors allowed the space to be closed off when company arrived, and she could hide the mess if she were interrupted in the middle of a project. This turned out to be her favorite room in the house after the remodel.
We have also created music rooms for musical families and piano teachers, dance studios with ballet bars and full-wall mirrors, sound-proof media rooms for music recording studios and theater rooms for movie enthusiasts, to name a few. Some would imagine that such spaces are reserved for only the rich and famous, but if this is the space a family needs, it should be considered during the design phase of a remodel. By prioritizing and multi-tasking spaces, people may be surprised at what a “normal” house can do.
One issue is that an overly personal house can be a challenge when it comes time to sell. For example, not everyone may want an office attached to a master bedroom. However, it could be transformed into a sitting room by opening up the wall between the two rooms, or another bedroom by removing the adjoining door and adding a door from the hall. These options could even be framed into the walls during the construction phase — the changes would then mainly be adding and subtracting sheet rock and paint.
The trick to life-centered design is to stay open, be creative, and don’t be afraid to dream. Look at life situations to gauge future needs and wants. Circumstances evolve, children grow and hobbies change, but sometimes it comes full circle — the large gathering room that hosted teenager movie nights may be the same space grown children and their families gather to visit grandparents.
One of the advantages of remodeling is centering the design on one’s own life. Embrace the challenge and you will love the result.
Ann Robinson and Annie V. Schwemmer are the principal architects and co-founders of a residential architectural firm focused on life-changing remodeling designs at RenovationDesignGroup.com. Send comments or questions to ask@RenovationDesignGroup.com