Temptation & Design“Here Kitty, come and look at my plan; I shall think I am a great architect if I have not got incompatible stairs and fireplaces…” – Dorothea Brooke (from Middlemarch by George Eliot)
Is It Harder to Design A small House?
Shawn and I have just submitted building plans and this summer will build The Beekeeper’s Bungalow here in Point Roberts, WA. It’s a pretty exciting time for us and we are eager to flex our building muscles again. In coming up with the plans for this small house, we were aiming to design a simple, classic looking – but not overly expensive – plan that will fit well in our beach side neighborhood. We were also working hard to maximize both interior space and yard space. Inside, we wanted to design small but make plenty of room for things we enjoy: cooking, reading on the couch – we are beginning to daydream about getting – with room for yoga, work and other indoor activities. We wanted a private bedroom retreat for a main bedroom as well as a second bedroom for visitors or kids that could easily double as an office area, craft room, or what have you. Outside, we wanted a covered porch to sit on during the summer and winter alike. We wanted to design in such a way that a long and narrow lot like ours would not be overwhelmed by a too large home. We also wanted to save a lot of room for gardening around the house, so a small footprint was important in this case especially. In order to accomplish the small footprint, we found it easier to go up rather than out, but at the same time, we had other considerations locally to keep in mind. We live in a high wind area. Winter storms can really get to raging around here and a very tall house in a windy area can be a noisy and even stressful experience. Secondly, there is a height restriction in our neighborhood, so a very tall house is not even an option. Aside from legalities, the other homes in our locale are mostly older and smaller homes. We want our house to complement its surroundings and be a benefit to it. Considering how much thought goes into a home, the fact is that much of the time other people are looking at it and not you. In many senses, we owe our surroundings some thought in the design process too. The last considerations that kept us wanting to go a full two stories with this design are more humorous. Shawn hates heights and both of us like snug, slope roofed second floors for our own preferences, plus the lower overall height of the building is not just cozy, it also casts less shade on the back garden, which is already thriving behind where the house will go up this summer.Another issue? Temptation…Any time you design something, it turns out to be a challenge. In many ways, it is more challenging to design and build a ‘truly’ small but functional building that accomplishes the things that we need our shelters to provide us. That ranges from practical things like enough bedrooms to satisfying whatever aesthetic is most dear to us. We originally thought to design this plan as a sixteen foot wide home, as that width seems to have a tremendously appealing narrow neatness to the front aspect. After numerous tries to fit in a first floor bedroom plus a second floor bedroom or two first floor bedrooms, we gave up the plan. Why? The stairs just wouldn’t work. We needed more room on the first floor. Many of the most wonderful (IMHO) designs of yesteryear in terms of farmhouses, bungalows, New Englanders and other classic designs are much more difficult to design in today’s world. It’s not that they are difficult to build but that building codes have changed a great deal. Stairwells, in particular, are a real challenge in modern home design. To meet fire and other safety codes, there are a number of prescriptives that dictate allowable widths for the stair treads along with rise and run measurements. Meeting code can throw off the whole floor plan! It can be a bit frustrating at times to begin to be attached to a great looking floor plan that is small and really works but then find that designing in the code regulated stairwell scraps the plan! It’s not that there is no value in the code. I’m not one who sees a lot of efficacy in battling code, anyway. But it’s a reality that can present a challenge.What’s that old Biblical bounder Temptation got to do with house design, anyway? Well, an easy way to solve tricky code issues is to just make the design you are working with bigger. Then everything fits, right? We sometimes find ourselves saying, maybe we could just widen it a couple of feet…how would a 20 foot wide house look? That’s not so big. And truly, it isn’t. In the right place, it might be perfect. The numbers don’t make a thing “good” or “bad.” But when we’d go from the drawing board to the yard and move our stakes around (four or more wooden stakes are a great friend on the building site!) we’d find that no, 20 feet was not the solution. More work at the drawing board was the solution. Our compromise has been an 18 foot wide home. When we look at the stakes, it seems just right. It doesn’t overwhelm the lot. It neither bursts at the seams nor cringes on the lot. It took some careful measuring and consideration to get the stairwell just right, but now that it’s designed, we like the double landings/turns in it a great deal! A stairwell may be one of the trickier parts of design work in a small space, but as in grand palaces, it’s also a wonderful visual focal point, a splashy part of the architecture that offers much for the senses to enjoy. So while it might be a little tricky to design, it’s also worth it. Stairs offer much to the small home, as well, from a practical design perspective. You can use them as a place to tuck in a handy closet, a little bathroom, a room divider, or as a piece that creates a hallway. Stairs are worth the trouble.Any other difficult areas in small house design? Well, a funny one has to do with windows. We are big fans of old style windows. Seems that windows can either make or break a house and there’s something so wonderful about the way that windows take on the function of a home’s facial expression. I love to see a sleepy looking bungalow with a pair of low windows hanging half shut on the big dormer up front over the porch. I like the cheeky look that little windows can have along a side wall, as though they are small but definitely keeping an eye out. Windows can make a home look proud, inviting, cozy, aloof, sleepy, fairy-tale esque, adorable. The response I often have to a home is often most directly related to windows and encroaching gardens. Shawn responds strongly to porches (perhaps from growing up in a hot southern climate?) trim work. All these elements are so important in personalizing a home. They are the details we don’t want to lose as time goes by. So what makes window design a bit more difficult nowadays? Bedrooms in all homes require “egress” windows that meet fire code and building code specifications. A fire fighter needs to be able to enter a window with full gear on in order to rescue occupants. If you think about the archetypal fire fighter in full gear, that will give you an idea about the size of the window being required. Goodbye low slung sleepy little dormer windows…goodbye tall narrow sleeping beauty style bedroom windows…goodbye to a lot of the characteristic windows that could be placed in any location in older designs. So does this mean our only recourse to modern building and fire codes are soulless boxes with more thought given to the well respected but hopefully never encountered modern fire fighter than to dignified and appealing window layout? Of course not. Change is par for the course and creativity is something that brings a big smile to the face when it meets and solves a design issue. Sometimes the egress window has to be located in a less dominant location than right in the middle of the home’s face. This might mean some tricky work in location, etc. But more often than not, the extra work pays off. In the case of the Beekeeper’s Bungalow, we put the second floor bedroom’s egress window at the rear of the house and created a “sitting area” up front so that we could have windows up front that made sense architecturally. The back window meets all code requirements and also looks “in place” in its location.We like windows and stairs. Windows and stair placement, along with keeping a small home small are a few of the biggest challenges to designing good homes with good floorplans. We try to spend a lot of time thoughtfully solving these issues so that we are both code compliant and aesthetically appealing. For all of us, knowing what we want our homes to provide us with can enable us powerfully when it comes to choosing to buy, design, renovate or purchase plans for small, working homes that are attractive, appealing and happily functional. Every floor plan has to be different. There has to be variety; one, two and even three bedroom designs. Some will need to be one story, some two, some one and a half. It’s challenging sometimes. But when you get a plan that seems to really work and then get positive feedback from the internet world, it’s a great feeling. A challenge met head on, with a positive outcome! It’s hard to request more.The Beekeeper’s Bungalow will come alive this summer, Buzz…, and we are pleased to have accomplished the plan creation while resisting the temptation to make the plan bigger than we wanted in order to have an easier time in the design process. We hope you will come back and visit the process through the many photos we’ll be posting of the project as it unfolds.