What is Good Design?
Ask any group of people what they think “good design” means, and you’re likely to receive a range of responses. For most of us the easier question may be, “What is bad design?” We seem to immediately recognize what we consider unattractive. When the question of design relates to our homes, the wide variety of houses built all across the country proves that, as a society, we have some extremely diverse opinions about what we consider to be good design.
This is a complex topic, so I’ll offer my comments in several parts.
In the creation of both the exterior and the interior design of a home, four essential elements come into play: scale, proportion, mass, and functionality. Adjusting one of these elements often changes the others. Thus, the impact of modifying virtually any aspect of a design must be carefully considered.
Although most people don’t analyze why they are attracted to certain homes but not others, they often find themselves drawn to houses that have been designed and built with particular attention to details. Most of us have an innate sense of scale and proportion, and we respond to houses in which these elements combine to yield a feeling of permanence.
People frequently find homes built in the early part of the twentieth century attractive. Many of these residences were constructed during a period when architects and builders paid strict attention to craftsmanship and details.
For example, the next time you look at a porch, consider the posts that support the roof above. For most porches 4” × 4” columns will suffice structurally, but somehow they seem too small. A porch with 8” × 8” columns just feels better. Thicker posts give us the sense that the porch is a safe and secure place. Take a look at the porch columns on the homes in Camelot by Roofing Custom Homes and see if you don’t agree.
As previously mentioned, although “good” design proves challenging to define, one of the essential elements of an appealing home is proper proportion.
One example of incorrect proportion is a roof that appears either too tall or too low for the rest of the home. The mass of the roof must be proportional to the main body of the house in order for the two to relate comfortably to each other. The roof’s pitch, or angle, determines it’s overall height. If the pitch is too steep, the roof will appear to be too tall, with its mass being out of proportion with that of the rest of the house. A home with a well-conceived roof design is appealing no matter what “style” it is!
By examining the exterior of any home, you’ll find numerous areas where proportion and scale influence the design. One morning a number of years ago, while I was driving with my family through a neighborhood of new, mass-produced homes, my youngest son commented, “Dad, those windows don’t look right.” When I asked him to explain, he answered, “Those pieces of wood [shutters] on each side of the window don’t look very good.” There’s no need for a formal design education to notice that wide windows with narrow shutters simply don’t seem appropriately sized.
The same elements of scale and proportion relate to the interior of homes as well.
To understand the importance of scale inside a home, consider the differences between public buildings and houses. Offices, malls, schools, and places of worship are intentionally built on a huge scale, often with soaring ceilings, walls of glass, and massive beams. This allows large numbers of people to inhabit them in comfort. However, homes that are designed and built on a massive scale can lose their sense of security and comfort. This doesn’t mean that houses should never have vaulted ceilings or tall windows. Rather, it means that the scale and proportions of the room must be considered when determining ceiling heights.
Appropriate interior proportion involves ceiling height and room size. Although raised ceilings can create the illusion of space, they can just as easily make a room seem small. Basically, if a room is taller than it is wide or deep, you may feel as though you’re in a cavern.
Wall thickness is another small detail where scale can make a substantial difference. The typical interior wall is framed with 3½inch-wide wood studs. When this thickness is doubled to 7 inches (using two studs) at openings, there is a perception that all the walls are this thick and the entire home appears to be sturdier. In some cases, thickening the walls to 12 inches can offer an even more substantial look. For example, take a close look at this floor plan (PBH-6399 – floor plan) and note that the short walls that separate the dining/kitchen and the great room/dining are thicker than the other walls. This is a very inexpensive detail that creates a rather dramatic difference as you walk between these areas.