During the 19th century, if you wanted to know something about the design of houses, you might have consulted a "pattern book" such as "Palliser's Model Homes for the People," published in 1876.

Pattern books literally offered drawings and details reflecting then-fashionable styles of domestic architecture. These guides to taste also were specific enough to help an owner and builder in the construction of a new dwelling.

For the consumer, today's pattern-book equivalents are the many magazines published monthly showing the latest fashions and trends in home design. Most emphasize interior decoration and furnishing, and only occasionally is documentation -- plans, sections, elevations, details -- sufficient to accurately replicate an entire house. For home builders, pattern books for constructing single-family homes continue to be published, though they rarely are found in drugstore magazine racks.

But dwelling "patterns" can refer to more than stylistic models or templates in books. In architectural schools, students learn about patterns of composition, massing, geometry, space, light, structure, surface and use. They are taught that, rather than simply reproducing sets of patterns already prescribed and published, they should explore more fundamental patterns that transcend stylistic affectation.

The basic dwelling and its patterns of form and use are often the first kind of architectural exploration students encounter, partly because the act of "dwelling" is a universally shared and comprehensible experience. However, it doesn't take long for students to discover that dwelling patterns and history are incredibly complex and diverse, and that the options for design are far richer than first imagined.

A dozen years ago, architects Charles Moore, Gerald Allen and Donlyn Lyndon wrote "The Place of Houses," a book that aspired to being an accessible, theoretically based alternative to pattern books. Written for consumers, not just designers, it uses history to illustrate timeless concepts about dwelling patterns -- how dwellings relate to landscapes, to streetscapes and to each other, how they are shaped and assembled, how they are used, and what they can mean to their inhabitants.

The authors talk about houses being composed of three "orders": the order of rooms, the order of machines and the order of dreams. Rooms are "empty stages . . . fixed in space by boundaries . . . animated by light, organized by focus, liberated by outlook." Assembled horizontally and vertically, rooms form a larger order of linked spaces relating to each other and to the outside world. This room order can have its own hierarchy of size and function, usually with major rooms surrounded by minor rooms. Occasionally, minor rooms may be "encompassed" by a major space, such as an encircling porch.

The order of machines refers metaphorically to those elements of a house, other than rooms and the structure enclosing them, that provide comfort, security and convenience. Some are, in fact, machine-like -- heating and cooling systems, plumbing, electrical networks, appliances -- but other "machines," like stairs, closets, fireplaces and furniture, are relatively unmechanical. To make and occupy a house, rooms and machines must be woven together thoughtfully.

Then comes the order of dreams. The authors theorize that a house inevitably is, and should be, "like" something else. It should suggest or recall, consciously or subconsciously, images or ideas from other times, places or domains. A dwelling as a whole, plus its constituent elements and contents, can have metaphoric significance. The authors state that, only by creating your own "order of dreams" can you "truly possess, personalize and give spirit to the otherwise impersonal orders of rooms and machines."

Moore, Allen and Lyndon ask, "What places have lurked in the recesses of your mind . . . secret gardens or labyrinthine mazes, arches of triumph or Alpine waterfalls, latticed porches or patios cooled by the splatter of fountains? Are they penthouses, spacious enough for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to grace . . . or staircases grand enough for Scarlett O'Hara to descend?" Some such place, "transmuted and miniaturized . . . is the home for your imagination."

"The Place of Houses" also talks about how dwellings are fitted to the land. A farmhouse sitting on a slight rise amid open fields or a vacation house perched dramatically atop a cliff "claim" the land. Houses nestled in woods or knitted snugly to the shoulder of a hill "merge" with the land. Houses with courtyards "surround" land. When a house or housing directly faces streets, plazas or desirable views, this is an "enfronting" relationship, which, in turn, requires enfronting facades.

Designing dwellings involves mapping patterns of activity and use, proximity, movement, entry and arrival, view, light and ventilation, among others. This then leads to design "inflections," the making of patterns of rooms, walls, roofs, windows, doors, porches and ornament that ultimately constitute the three orders.

Moore, Allen and Lyndon also list items, so often taken for granted, that people collect and bring to their personal dwelling environment -- furniture, housewares, clothing, pets and plants. Most important and precious are certain collectibles, whether heirlooms, paintings or baseball cards, that reflect their owners' unique values, family history, fantasies, passions or experiences.

The analytical model postulated by "The Place of Houses" seems to transcend debates about taste or style per se. Indeed, it seems applicable to many different cultures, regions, historical periods, economic levels, technologies and housing densities: Indian tepees or adobe pueblos, African huts or Asian yurts, Pompeiian villas, European castles or Connecticut Avenue condominiums.

The model's validity stems from its insistence on a humanistic description of a house. It recognizes common human needs for shelter and comfort, for privacy and security, and for intimacy. It identifies common patterns of human activity -- sleeping, cooking, eating, bathing, socializing, working, playing, storing, displaying -- that any dwelling, whether modest or grand, must accommodate or enhance. And it advocates an architecture that evokes images outside of itself, beyond function and budget -- the order of dreams.

Perhaps the holiday season is an ideal time to contemplate the shape and significance of your dwelling. For now is the time when you may come closest to acting out joyful fantasies on the hearth of your own home.

NEXT, in two weeks: Dwelling typologies.