Friday, January 30, 2009

What makes a good home?

I have been reading several books on residential design and in many of them the question is asked and answered on what makes a good home. I am going to devote the next several posts to exploring what other architects say makes a good home. In the book House Thinking by Winifred Gallagher she outlines the architect Grant Hildebrand's 5 characteristics of a good home. The are 1. Prospect - the big space 2. Refuge, 3. Enticement, 4. Peril, and 5. Complex Order. The ratio of prospect to refuge is very personal and both are necessary. The alcove off the great room or the window seat in the family room. Enticement is the element that is often so wonderfully explored in custom homes and left out of tract housing. The window placed just right or the gate opening into a lush hidden garden. Peril - I question, Hildebrand uses the term to describe a house on a cliff, or large witnessing a storm through large windows and the contrasting safety one feels inside the house. I think you need to be connected to nature but not threatened by nature. Finally, complex order delights our mind and allows us to appreciate the details of the house.

Monday, January 26, 2009

How to analyze a potential building site

The first step is to discover the uniqueness of the site. This is accomplished through a detailed site analysis, which will explore both the human use of the site and the ecosystem of the site. The site should be studied both analytically and emotionally. We begin by wandering the site, feeling the breezes, enjoying the views and smelling the fauna on numerous visits in different seasons and weather conditions.
The analytical analysis includes the following:
1. A base plan showing the existing conditions such as legal boundaries and easements; contours; trees over six inches; buildings; utility locations; ponds; marshes, wet lands, critical areas or other bodies of water. A licensed local surveyor can provide this information. It is essential for you to outline the scope of information that you want included on your survey. If your property is in a low lying area or a flood plain be sure to request a benchmark elevation. The survey will also include a North Arrow.

2. Next we annotate the survey showing the views, both good and bad; focal points; specimen trees; the direction of the breezes; surface drainage patterns; local microclimates; native plants; noise sources; and any other significant characteristic of the site.

3. A building cannot be knowledgably placed on the site without understanding the importance of the sun’s angles. How much difference is there between where the sun rises and sets from the winter to summer solstice? How much difference is there in its altitude at noon? This provides the criteria for sizing overhangs and porches to allow sun in the winter and shade in the summer. Sun angles are unique to each location and can be found in the ASHRAE Handbook of Fundamentals, 2001 or from the website To determine the sun angles, you must know the longitude and latitude of your site, which can be found at Altitude is the angle up from the horizon. Zero degrees altitude means exactly on your local horizon, and 90 degrees is "straight up". Azimuth is the angle along the horizon. Using these two angles, one can describe the apparent position of the sun at a given time.
Native vegetation- what would grow naturally in a given location? Is there room on a building site for native habitat and what vegetation encourages wildlife. Is it possible to coordinate natural corridor for wild life to move about with a development human inhibited place.

Once the analysis of existing conditions is completed, the protection and best use of the site is studied. You will want to consider the following.

1. Methods for preserving existing site and it’s flora and fauna. Building placement, or multiple small buildings, pile foundations, protection fencing, and research on value of native plant material. Study the site and resist the urge to clear it first.

2. Outdoor living spaces designed like interior living spaces. Combine them to make even larger inside/outside room. Fireplaces, lamps comfortable furniture, torches, chandeliers, art.

3. Sunset-sunrise viewing space- magical almost every day.

4. Bird feeders to better witness the cycles of migratory birds and the changes in permanent residents

5. Less lawn to allow for more bio diversity

1. Size does Matter

This is the final installment in ten things you should know befor you build or buy a house in coastal South Carolina. A smaller house that utilizes the outside and is designed to accommodate your specific lifestyle with thoughtful detailing will save money and be easier to maintain. You can put your once a year visitors into a four star hotel cheaper than building the extra square footage.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

2. Have an Overall Concept

Develop a concept early. A strong concept will make most construction decisions easier. In our house, which is a 1947 Quonset Hut, we decided to explore the use of corrugated materials throughout the house. This photo shows the incorporation of corrugated glass in our front door. Your concept can be generated from almost anything. Some successful concepts that we have worked with include the site, i.e. every room should have a view of the great tree or the river; a collection, we once designed a house to fit a client's collection of arts and crafts furniture; an energy efficiency goal; or a mood that you want to create.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

3. Southern Vernacular Architecture

Southern vernacular architecture is based on sustainable design ideas and the principles sitll apply. Large porches on the south facade keep out the hot summer sun; large overhangs protect the walls and windows from rain and can block the harsh summer sun; single width rooms provide cross ventilation and natural light; high ceilings keep the rooms cooler in the summer; exterior window shutters provide protection from high winds; a raised first floor protects you from flood waters; and a dog trot form provides natural ventilation in the center passage. You can follow these time tested principles and have an open modern floor plan that accomodates contemporary living.

Monday, January 19, 2009

4. MOLD!

If the house smells like mold...find the mold and get rid of it! Hot humid air should be kept out of the house. It the house is on a crawl space, the crawl space should not have vents, it should be insulated at the walls and conditioned. The same goes for the attic; the attic should be insulated at the roof and conditioned. All Heating, Air-Conditioning, and Ventilation (HVAC) ducts should be within the conditioned envelope of the house. Exterior walls are going to get wet; provide a drain plain to facilitate drying between the exterior sheathing and exterior finish siding. This is a photo of a blower door test, that checks for leakage in the exterior skin of the house.

Monday, January 12, 2009

5. Build above the Building Code

The wind can blow hard and the days can be hot – simplify your life by building above the building code in both structural and energy design. The International Residential Code requires that all windows must at least be fitted with pre-cut wood structural panels as per the code. Up-grading to impact glass in the doors and windows or impact rated shutters lessens the hassle when preparing your house for a potential hurricane. Increasing the amount of insulation, using spray-in insulation, and sealing all exterior air leakage can drastically reduce your energy costs and save on the HVAC equipment size and cost.

Friday, January 9, 2009

6. Consider Outbuildings

Consider separate buildings for guest quarters and garages. Our temperate climate encourages outdoor spaces. The space between buildings creates opportunities for courtyards. Other rewards are energy costs savings, increased privacy, and detached garages keep noxious fumes out of living spaces.

7. Go Native

Go Native – retain existing native plant material on your lot. It is beautiful, non-invasive plants, require less watering and are easy to maintain. Reduce the amount of sod to conserve water and attract birds.
This landscape was designed by Thomas Angell of Verdant Enterprises. Thomas specializes in lowcountry native plant material. He completes a detail existing plant inventory before he begins his design. Check out more of his work at

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

8. Create outdoor living space

Outdoor living space should be designed as throughly as interior space. Consider how you will use the exterior space. I love to entertain and my large granite table will seat 20 people. We exterior heaters we can enjoy eating outside year round. Here we are enjoying Christmas morning brunch.
The exterior space should be connected both physically and visually to the interior space.