Can You Spot Good (or Bad) Design?
Most people know immediately whether they like (or don’t like) the look and feel of a house. If you’ve gone house hunting with a realtor, it probably only took seconds for you to form an opinion about a property, sometimes even before stepping into the home. Usually, the reasons are easy to articulate (for instance, you don’t like the exterior color or the floor plan). However, there are other factors, often subconscious, that can influence your perception of a home’s appeal.
Before the 1950’s, most houses were designed by architects. A rigorous level of training usually ensured that homes were designed using solid design principles. Solid training and solid design are part of the reason many people feel that older homes have "good bones." Today, many homes are built using stock home plans. Most builders are great at their trade but typically have not been trained in design. Their choices are often dictated by trends, consumer demands, and the affordability of materials.
What does this mean for the home buyer? If you are not using an architect or if you are purchasing a previously owned home, the ability to recognize good design (or the ability to hire a designer, ahem, who does) will go a long way in ensuring the home you buy is a solid investment and one that you will love for years.
This can be a touchy subject, so I will make this disclaimer: First and foremost, a home should provide shelter and safety. If your home (or future home) does this, then you have achieved the most important goals of owning a home. But if you are interested in what makes a home classic, regardless of architectural style, read on.
Let's dig in!
A well-designed home will read as balanced. This can mean symmetry, like this beauty below...
This is one of the most pinned houses on Pinterest. Can you tell what year it was built? Me either...
A home that is built to last usually can't be pegged to a telltale trend that immediately dates it. The bones of this house are classic. Beautiful symmetry, quality materials, consistency in window style, classic color palette, and clean lines are all factors that add to its timelessness.
Balance doesn't have to equal symmetry (although this is often used in architecture to achieve balance), but it does mean that one side of the home should not read as significantly heavier than the other when dividing at the midline.
Here is another example of a house with beautiful balance achieved by symmetry. This home is by Pursley Dixon Architecture, one of my favorite Charlotte, NC architectural firms. Bonus points for the blue shutters!
Why Spending Lots of Money Doesn't Guarantee a Classic Home
The next example is a home that demonstrates why spending a lot of money on expensive "upgrades" doesn't necessarily improve your home's architecture. We will herein refer to this photo as our "Tudor" example.
Many people would consider this home desirable but from an architectural perspective, it demonstrates several errors that are often made on high-end homes.
1. Not keeping window styles consistent
This home has three different mullion styles (the vertical and horizontal pieces that divide a window), plus arched windows, rectangular windows, a bay window, and transoms. Stick to one style of mullion and minimize the different types of windows used.
2. Using materials that aren't historically and architecturally accurate for the style
This Tudor-style home uses brick to mimic a half-timber detail, which should be made of wood. Timbers embedded in the stone veneer create a visual disruption. Ideally, use materials that are historically accurate and/or nicely mimic the original material that would have been used. For example, modern Tudors are no longer constructed of wattle and daub, but using stucco and decorative veneer timbers work well to mimic the look of a traditional Tudor.
3. Not clearly defining your entry
At first glance, it appears that the large arched void (in Tudor photo above) is the entrance, but the area is blocked by an iron railing, rendering it useless.
In contrast, look at this gorgeous entry home by Pursley Dixon Architecture. I have no affiliation with Pursley Dixon, I just covet their work.
I would happily live in this house for years and years.
4. Too many exterior materials
The Tudor house example combines brick, stone, wood, stucco, copper (metal roofing), asphalt shingles, and various window and mullion styles. There is also a strong contrast in color between the stone and brick, which add to the disjointed appearance. In architecture, less is often more. Compare the Tudor home with the white Pursley Dixon house pictured above. Which feels more unified in appearance and which creates visual clutter?
5. “Business in the front, party in the back” aka not keeping exterior materials and styles consistent around the entire exterior of the home
The following home pictured is an example of mistake number five. Yes, that is two views of the same exact house (image from Zillow)!
It is likely that this home’s look was dictated by the client, who was either trying to compromise between two styles or was aiming to fuse modern and European architecture; unfortunately, they missed their mark. Not only do the styles not meld well together in this home, but the front and rear elevations do not even appear to belong to the same structure.
Keep materials and style consistent across all exterior elevations. When can you mix styles?
A skilled architect who is well versed in the rules of architecture can meld complementary styles, within reason. Styles can also be successfully combined in interiors, such as the example below, which combines classic Parisian architecture with modern furnishings.
6. Garage dominant house
Homeowners love the convenience of an attached garage because they offer safety and shelter from the elements. Lot size and shape usually dictate where a garage can be placed. Often, this results in front load garages or a large secondary mass, and both can detract from the balance of a home.
Below, we have a clear example of how the secondary mass (the garage) projects far beyond the primary mass and throws the balance off. The garage also competes with the home’s front entry as the main focal point.
These design errors are only a few of the mistakes I see daily on high-end, custom homes. Sometimes mistakes are minor, and only a trained eye would notice them; however, other errors detract significantly from a home’s appeal. Costly mistakes can be prevented with proper guidance. When building a custom home, your best design allies are your architect and interior designer.
If you are building a custom home or remodeling and would like guidance, contact me here.
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