What is design -- that thing architects are always screeching and preaching about? And why does the average person have such a hard time grasping it?

When I asked several architects, I got some interesting answers.

"Design is not as mysterious as people think. It's pretty straightforward," said Jeremiah Eck, a Boston architect who has written a book titled "The Distinctive House."

Eck, who's has designed more than 300 houses in the past 25 years, said that with residential projects, design boils down to four things. "If you don't do anything else, you should think about these."

First, he said, think about where you're building the house. Factor this into the planning.

"Where is the neighbor's house? Where is the view? What is the vegetation? Which way is south? Is there a slope or is it flat? Don't assume that the site is so bland or boring that it's not worth your time and attention -- even the flattest prairie in Kansas has something you can take advantage of," Eck said.

Small changes and seemingly minor plan alterations can have a large impact, he added. Turn the house slightly and you get the view both in the family room and the master bedroom. Or, turn the plan slightly another way and you get southern exposures for the main living areas of the house. This allows you to take advantage of the sun's warmth in winter and lower your heating bill. Provide a sufficient overhang and the same spaces will be shaded in the summer, which will lower your cooling bill.

Most builders will massage a plan, but not always to good effect, Eck said.

In many of the tract-built subdivisions that he's seen over the years, the plans were massaged, but only to fit within the lot setbacks. Other site specifics were not taken into account, "So you get things like a great view of a nearby tree stand visible only from the garage."

Second on Eck's list: The plan should reflect the way you really live. If you enter the house through the garage, create a garage foyer instead of entering through the laundry room, the case with most houses built in the past 20 years. Then, when you come in, your first glimpse of "home sweet home" will not be a big pile of dirty laundry. If you entertain infrequently, don't spend a lot on a splashy entrance to wow your guests.

As you put a plan together, the size and proportion of the rooms should make sense both aesthetically and practically, Eck said, noting that some houses fail on both counts. In one extremely large house, he recalled, the eat-in kitchen/family room was 60 feet long and 25 feet wide, but the ceiling was so low "it felt like you were in a bowling alley." The appliances in the kitchen were close together, which made the kitchen easier to work in. But, Eck said, "if you were entertaining and your guests were at the other end of the space, it would feel like they were a mile away."

Third on Eck's list: The exterior should have some relationship to the interior spaces. In many new houses, the roofline has become increasingly elaborate, with multiple gables and a steep pitch, all to make the house look bigger and grander. But in most cases, there's no usable space under the steep roof. Instead, it's filled with roof trusses, and the dormer windows are fake. Eck said it's more sensible and often cheaper to choose a simple roofline with sufficient slope to drain properly.

This would free up money for the last item on his list: A few exterior and interior details that add a level of quality that you can enjoy every day.

On the exterior you might consider installing a solid mahogany door with a solid brass handle. On the interior, a stair that's wider than the code-mandated 36-inches with longer treads and lower risers will feel more comfortable; a mahogany railing will match the front door and give a richer look. Nicer looking cabinets with upgraded hardware will add some cachet to your kitchen. Getting extra features such as rollout trays for the base cabinets will make your meal preparation easier and more pleasant every day you live in the house.

The careful selection of the few nice details should be made toward the end of the design process, after the big-picture issues concerning the site, floor plan and roof lines and so forth have been resolved and the budget firmly established.

The architects, though, said that clients often want to start with the details. "They have a hard time seeing the forest -- the whole house -- for the trees, and some don't even see that far -- they're fixated on the leaves," said Matthew Mitchell, and architect in Sunrise, Fla.

Memphis architect Carson Looney agreed that getting clients to stop thinking about a look or a particular product and to focus on more substantial functional issues -- "get their mindset off the flash and into the soup stock first," as he put it -- can be challenging, partly because clients often confuse the two.

For example, Looney said, if the clients have plastic laminate countertops and cheap appliances and say their kitchen is impossible to work in, they attribute the problem to the materials and their old stove, not to the fact that they have a minuscule food preparation area and bump into each other when trying to get a meal on the table.

His clients are not sophisticated because most of them have never built a house before, Looney said. They have "a wish book and dreams, and they come into the first meeting with a one-inch-thick stack of magazine pictures they've collected over five years."

They need to be gently eased into a big-picture mindset, Looney said. "If the clients talk about granites at the beginning, we say, 'the granite will look great, but we have to deal with the appliances layout first.' "

What design shortcomings in their current house brings clients to an architect's door? Sometimes they realize there's a complete disconnect between their house and its surroundings. Mitchell recalled a 25-year-old house that sat on three acres, but the house itself was completely "internalized." Though large, it had small windows, it was dark inside, and there was nothing in its design that addressed the main thing about the house, its location.

As far as the daily life of the owners was concerned, the house could have been anywhere.

Fairfax County architect Bill Sutton said clients who come to him from tract-built houses complain about windows that are hard to open, bowed-out walls and squeaky floors. The floor plans are often impractical, with poor circulation and poorly sized rooms, but "human beings are so amazingly adaptable the clients don't see it."

A classic example: "A two-story family room with a two-story fireplace and nowhere to put a TV so it ends up on a little stand in front of the French doors. The glare from the windows can be so bad, the owners have a hard time watching TV during the day."

Looney said, "Almost every single client who bought a builder house says, 'get rid of the blown-out foyer and eliminate it.' The foyer initially impressed them, but then they realized it was a waste of space."

Their second gripe is the lack of storage. They realize how much stuff they have -- collections, sports memorabilia, sports equipment, books and artwork -- and they don't have any place to accommodate it.

Do the clients ever grasp what design is all about? Though most are clueless initially, the architects said, clients develop a clear understanding of it as they observe discussions about the site, what works in their present house and what doesn't, the particulars of their lifestyle and many other things that evolve into a design that is then built. For the rare client who decides to do another house, it's much easier the second time around.

Katherine Salant can be contacted at Salantques@aol.com.

{copy} 2002, Katherine Salant

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