If you’re interested in gaining more than just added floor space from your upcoming home renovation, there’s a time-tested resource you need to absorb before anyone wearing a toolbelt arrives on the scene. It’s a book called A Pattern Language (Oxford University Press, 1977), a now-classic reference text that’s been in print and actively followed in the architectural field for decades. Most homeowners pursue major renovations as often to boost the character and quality of their living space as to gain square footage. But there’s a problem that often arises in this area, a gap between expectation and outcome.
The skills involved in making a home bigger don’t necessarily translate to making a home aesthetically better or more emotionally uplifting. For that you need a different set of eyes, a way of seeing that recognizes the value of things that can’t be measured empirical©ly, yet still exert a powerful influence. Exactly what are the design elements that make a house into something that enriches the social lives of people who dwell there? What are the specific construction techniques that create a joyful, uplifting home place? And how can these qualities be incorporated into a renovation or building project in a practical way? As it turns out, there are absolute principles involved, and though the implementation is always site-specific, the fundamentals of great spaces can be recognized, learned and applied predictably.
I began to suspect this truth after recognizing similarities in joyful spaces and by analyzing my feelings of discontent while surrounded by unpleasant ones. And this analysis primed my curiosity just in time for my introduction to A Pattern Language more than 30 years ago. It’s the work of six people who’ve scoured the globe searching for specific details that make region∂s, towns, neighbourhoods and buildings work well, both practically and socially. And in this regard, their findings go far beyond the scope of home renovations or even new construction. But of the 253 specific features identified, almost 150 apply in some way to the shape of homes and their surrounding grounds. And this is where I get excited. These features, called patterns by the authors, include six that stand out as pivotal in my own experience.
Pattern#107 – Wings of Light: It’s no surprise that lots of natural light is essential to a pleasing home space. Trouble is, most of us don’t remember that fact until it’s too late. That’s why you need to keep light in mind when making decisions about floor plans and room layout. One of the drawbacks of artificial light is that its near-constant use tends to be assumed during the design process. Don’t fall into that trap. By arranging the outline of buildings so they include wings (instead Œof chunky, square-shaped floor plans), you take the first step towards maximizing the influence of natural light in your life. You need sunny walls to have sunny indoor spaces.
Pattern#116 – A Cascade of Roofs: A roof needs to do more than keep the rain off if it’s to be completely successful. There’s an external, visual component, too. That’s why a hierarchy of roofs cascading down with differing pitches is a visual feature seen across different eras and locations. It’s a hallmark of pleasing architecture and is more affordable and accessible than ever before. Computer design and manufacturing tools have now made interesting, high-slope truss roofs widely available at reasonable prices. They simulate the intricate rafter work of a master carpenter, while demanding only ordinary on-site assembly skills. Be sure to ask about computer-designed trusses if your renovation includes a new roof frame.
Pattern#130 – Entrance Room: One of the most important features of a successful home is the incorporation of transition zones between indoor space and the outdoors. No one likes to step out of a house only to feel the full brunt of the elements inches away from the door handle. What you’re looking for is a realm that’s neither completely inside nor outdoors, a space that eases the movements of people on a practical and visual level. Decks are one example of this, though their lack of a roof limits the buffering effect they can provide. That’s why you should consider some type of covered entrance, verandah or mudroom in your renovation plans. Once again, it’s easy to forget during the designing process, though worth the trouble afterwards.
Pattern#145 – Bulk Storage: Promoting household organization isn’t so much about getting rid of stuff as it is on the system you have for storing it. And Bfrom what I’ve seen, the first phase of the battle against household clutter is usually lost because of poor household design. That’s why you don’t want to leave the issue of storage areas to the end of any design process. Effective storage simply demands more space than seems reasonable if you allocate it as an afterthought. Reserve about 15% to 20% of total building floor area to storage, ideally positioned along north-facing walls. There’s no point in wasting valuable, light-bearing southern wall exposure on a pile of plastic storage totes and wire wall shelves.
Pattern#159 – Light on Two Sides of Every Room: Of all the patterns, this is my favourite because it’s so easy to appreciate. Think of the spaces you find pleasing. Don’t most include natural light entering from two sides? It’s not just a matter of light intensitty or source, but of the way dual-direction light dispels shadows. But as valuable as this pattern is, it’s also difficult to create in every room. For important spaces where it isn’t possible to include light from two sides, try incorporating high ceilings with tall windows. White walls help, too, because of their reflective abilities. When a set of ideas is true and useful you’ll find evidence of it put into practice and improved over time.
Good philosophies don’t fizzle, and that’s the case with A Pattern Language. Decades after the release of the original A Pattern Language book, a homeowner-specific distillation of the original message was released in a new book called Patterns of Home (Taunton Press). It’s the work of three of the original authors, relating their pattern-related experiences applied in there real world.