Sunday, February 26, 2006

American House Design Awfulness

After my declaration of Death to the Great Room, it got me thinking about other spaces in the Typical North American House, the ways real estate developers have endowed them with fatal flaws, and ways Architects could make them better (assuming we Architects might ever be asked). Most typical design flaws, which I will list for you, are included because of tradition, momentum, marketing reasons, lack of imagination, or the worse reason of all, to appeal to our vanity and sense of prominence and self-importance. Keep these reasons in the back of your mind as you go through...

Howard's List of American House Design Awfulness
(yeah, I could have done better with that title):
  • The Formal Dining Room: Every house over 1,500 square feet that I have been hired to remodel, renovate, and add onto has had one of these utterly useless rooms. By "formal" dining room I mean a private room, visually closed off or separated from all adjacent rooms, and clearly intended to be used as a feed lot for the entertaining and fattening up of honored guests. First off, the vast majority of North Americans (and this includes Canadians) do not use the formal dining room to eat as a family unit, nor do they invite others over to eat any more than three or four times a year, if that. While there is a minority who entertain guests on a semi-monthly basis -- my wife's parents are that notable exception -- what is most striking is that most of us, myself included, think while we're in the process of buying a new house that we'll have friends and family over all the time, and we like the idea of a fancy-pants dining hall to feed the multitudes. But in the end, we don't do it. So our "special" room goes unused for family or guest gustatation, and is used instead to assemble jigzaw puzzles (a nice big table), or it's used to pile things in (again that nice big table), or it's used by the kids for homework due to the relative privacy and quiet (and a nice big table). In all cases where a client includes the renovation of the formal dining room as part of the Scope of Work, I've been asked to remove walls opening it up to the kitchen, or I gave the room even more privacy (along with a lot of added shelving) to create a study, or in one current and notable case, I am converted the dining room into a mudroom with access to the front door and a new door to the garage! Unless you are a dues-paying member of the Minority of Social Butterflies, I say "Death to the Formal Dining Room."
  • The Laundry Room: This room is never really a room in the classic sense because the designation "room" clearly implies that there is actual room to do things in. Laundry rooms are almost always closets or nooks or leftover alcoves as part of a kitchen or mudroom. Or the very worst, they are a converted back porch of a Victorian house that was enclosed in the early 60's so the owners could play Russian roulette with the plumbing since the pipes are vulnerable to freezing and thawing (freezing is bad but the thawing that comes afterwards is worse, much worse). I, and most North Americans who actually do laundry, propose that building codes be passed requiring all Laundry Rooms to be at least as large as the unavoidable Formal Dining Room.
  • The Master Bedroom: I can't believe how huge and spacious these have become in the last 15 years. What do we use bedrooms for? We awaken, we dress, we leave the room, we come back 16 hours later, we undress, the fortunate among us fool around under the covers (either singly or in multiples), then we sleep. How much room does this need to take? Please don't answer this question. Any answer you give will be far too much information for this family blog. Thank you.
  • The Kitchen: This room is clearly the heart of every household, so housing developers and their underqualified "house designers" have made every effort to make this room functional. Thank goodness. [As an aside, I use the term "house designers" because that's truly what they are -- architecture school drop-outs or wanna be's who don't have the expertise or credentials to become licensed architects. And these "house designers" have been the ones responsible for designing over 95% of all housing in North America since World War II. Why? Because they're cheap. No wonder most of American housing looks like hell, huh?] Anyway, back to kitchens. I, as an architect, have been hired to upgrade finishes, open kitchens up to dining rooms (see above), and convert 1950's kitchens into 21st-century kitchens with great lighting, updated appliances and fixtures, new plumbing lines for refrigerator ice makers, and actual useful peninsulas and islands (as opposed to the useless ones). Kitchen design almost always gets stylistically dated very quickly -- often within 10 years -- but rather than get all critical of kitchen design in contemporary tract housing, I will ask my readers for their input here. What typical kitchen features don't work as intended? Or better yet, what features work despite their intended design?
  • The Most Useless Space: Far and away, the most useless room in most houses is the "formal" living room (as opposed to the family room where actual living takes place). What makes the living room particularly useless is that, first of all, it's often an uncomfortably formal show-off room, and second, half the typical living room is devoted to circulation from one adjacent space to another adjacent space. Furnishing such a room, even while acknowledging traffic patterns rather than fighting them, which just makes it worse, is one of the greatest challenges for home owners. The great room that I wrote about a week ago is a classic example. It's located between the foyer, the entry to the master bedroom suite, the kitchen, the stairs, and the useless formal dining room. Thus, the great room is rarely used since most of the space is devoted to pedestrian use, leaving only two small corners for actually sitting/reading/conversing. Entertain guests in such a room? Forget it, even overlooking the unrealistic assumption that any of us might actually invite neighbors and friends into our houses. The two small corners of my clients' great room do not have good windows, views, light, or privacy of any sort. On top of that, their great room is always cold -- so cold that the owners placed an electric space heater in the middle of the room, in the middle of the pedestrian right-of-way, to keep it and the 20' ceilings warm.
  • Spaces We Would Love to See: 1) More indoor-outdoor connections. An eating nook with lots of glass looking out on a covered patio and a view beyond, even if it's just a view of a lawn or a victory garden, is a wonderful way of enlarging the spatial feel of a house without actually paying to enclose all that expensive space. Of course, if you want a large window with view and you live in a cold climate, you'll need highly-insulated low-E glass. 2) Indoor dog rooms. My household's dogs are large and stinky, so we never let them into the house. They live in the garage instead. If I didn't kick them out to the backyard between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm every day, they would never leave the garage except to pee and poo. If there was a small room dedicated to the dogs with a utility sink and concrete floors like a garage that could be swept (and hosed as necessary), and perhaps if this room had a Dutch door so the upper half of the door could be opened so the dogs might actually hear us and breath the same air as us (assuming the dogs aren't too stinky for the people, or vise versa), this could be a great addition to the American home. Actually, I have designed just such a room for two current clients, that's how smart I am! 3) And Finally: Include better and bigger mudrooms -- actual mudrooms -- with places to sort and store the mail, the keys, the cell phones and Blackberries, the spare change, and the coats, scarves, gloves, and galloshes.
So that's it -- my list of grievances with the functional aspects of house design in North America. I'm not even going to touch on the aesthetic side or the mechanical systems side (heating, air conditioning, plumbing) or the regional responsiveness side (regionally appropriate design and orientation to solar, wind, and view). Nah. Those grievances will have to wait for another day.

Yeah, North American housing design, as designed by North American house designers, sucks. Some houses and neighborhoods are better than others, of course. But they all still pretty much... well... suck. And that's sad to consider: All the billions, no, make that trillions that have been spent for such mediocre results...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What you say about your dogs' lives is sad. If you brush and bathe them regularly they don't stink and shed less.

Many dog people devote a room to the dogs and some even use dutch doors. They don't confine the dogs there exclusively, though, if they have a clue about living with dogs.

Your dog room is a good idea, though.

9:17 AM, March 09, 2006  

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