If we fail to plan, we create a plan to fail. The single most important step in any construction project is the “word picture.” This step is often not properly taken, or at least not taken seriously. In architectural language we call it “the program.” What is a word picture? A word picture is the description of what we are trying to accomplish in sentences. It should be well thought out and tell what we are trying to build. It needs to be detailed to the point of describing the rooms, views, ambiance, etc. For instance, the example we are going to use in this article is the “word picture” for a new home. We start by asking ourselves some questions: Do we want a basement, a main floor and an upstairs? What kind of life style do we want for this home? Do we do a lot of entertaining? Is the home located in the country or in the city? Does it have a view? Are we private people or public people?
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Size: Measure, Measure, Measure
Then we get down to the size. It is extremely important to have a tape measure and to use it to measure any and all rooms. Measure your present bedroom. If you like it, measure your neighbor’s bedroom. Measure the living room; measure the kitchens. Wear out that measuring tape describing the room sizes in feet and inches. To measure a good working room is better than trying to envision a room based on a set of blue prints. In your word picture describe which rooms you want next to each other. Do you want the baby’s nursery next to the master bedroom, or do you want it down the hall? Do you want a formal dining room? If so, do you want it immediately adjacent to the kitchen? Do you want a great room? Do you like stairways? If you like stairways, what kind do you want? Do you visualize the grand staircase winding up around a fireplace as a center piece to the living room, or do you want the stairway simply as a matter of getting from one floor to another? Do you like circular stairways? Is this home for a young couple getting started, or is it for a retirement home? All of these things need to be in the word picture. The word picture needs to be worked on for some time. Ideas will come several days after other ideas are in place. Carry a notebook with you to make notes, and record the measurements of rooms you encounter. Take a mental picture of what you want and write it down in a description.
After you have described the sizes of the rooms, describe what you want to happen in the rooms. Is the room for conversation, for a big screen TV, or for a dance? Each room has its own functions. Those functions can be multiple in nature. For some, a bedroom is simply a place to sleep; for others, it becomes an entertainment center. Some might like an office in the bedroom; others need a separate office. Bathrooms, yes every room, in the house have the same set of questions to be answered.
Never should a house be designed just because someone else has done it a particular way. There should be a reason for the size, shape and scope of each room in a home. Don’t ignore conventional design; work with it. For instance, a standard tub is 5 feet long. If you desire a larger one, this must be taken into consideration when planning the bathroom size. Non standard items, including an oversize tub will cost more.
A stairway in a home provides various pros and cons. Stairways are natural separators. Most people do not like to walk up or down stairways, and they will not do so without some motivation. Children go upstairs to get away from their parents, and parents go downstairs to get away from their children. When we get older, stairways become even more of an obstacle to our life style. On the other hand, stairways are often viewed as a form of decoration and beauty.
We have built homes with an upper floor that had a spectacular view out over the mountains, the valley and the trees. In that case, a multistory house is best. When building along the seacoast where the water will wash underneath the first floor, build a stairway. If stairways are an obvious need, remember to consider an elevator as a possibility. Both elevators and stairways are expensive. In my opinion, a home that can be built without a stairway is preferable, by far, to one that has a stairway.
It is amazing to me how many people don’t look at the cost of the stairway. The cost is more than just the lumber that it takes to make it. It is also the square footage of floor space that is taken out of both floors. A three-foot stairway will take out approximately 50 square feet on each of the floors, which is a 100 square feet. A 100 square foot area at $50.00 per square foot, is $5,000.00. In addition to the cost there is the substantial inconvenience of having the stairway. A stairway almost always dictates a certain amount of house design. It is difficult to place in many houses without interfering on one level or the other.
Very often I am asked about basements. Basements are a holdover from earlier time periods. For conventional homes they are useful as storm shelters. A basement is usually a dank, dark hole we bury junk in. Often we have mom carrying her laundry up and down the stairway, so she can wash in the basement. It has been my experience that the money spent on a basement could be far better spent on the main floor, making a larger house.
You might gather from some of my descriptions that I am against basements and upper floors. You are generally right, but that does not make it right for you. You have to decide in your word picture what you want. It should be thought out carefully. Consider the ramifications. Circumstances change hour by hour, day by day, and year by year. Sometimes the changes are instantaneous, such as a crippling disease or accident. Other times, changes are much slower, such as aging.
Bedrooms are often left without much thought. Is the bedroom for one person, an adult, guest, or child? Will the bedroom serve more purposes than just for sleeping. A very adequate bedroom can be made in a seven foot square area. Many options are available to provide storage and floor space by using bunk beds and the area under beds. Very often we build houses with huge bedrooms. It is very difficult to justify a larger bedroom unless the bedroom is also to become a game room or a play room. It should be remembered that bigger rooms lead to bigger messes. Bedrooms can easily become too large for children to manage. Also some parents insist children play in their rooms, but young children want to be with their parents. Many times I will have young mothers tell me they want their children to play in their room and keep their toys out from under foot. Inevitability, the child wants to be in the room with their mother. If she moves into the kitchen to work, that is where the child will go. If she moves to the laundry room, so will the child. Parents need to realize this fact and design a house accordingly.
In our grandparents time, most of the kitchens were large enough to serve as a kitchen, dining, family and party room. We now call these great rooms. I personally like great rooms. I think they help hold a family together. The parents who are successful in driving their kids away from them to their bedrooms and isolation when they are young, wonder why the kids don’t want to be confiding, talking and playing with them when they get older.
One of the rooms in the home with sweeping ramifications to the life style of the family, is the living room. Many houses have formal living rooms used only for guests. The family will spend most of their time in the kitchen, dining room (great room) and rarely spend time in a formal living room. This is especially true if the formal living room is too large. A living room needs to be small enough to be intimate, or large enough for bigger groupings.
When you sit down to carry on a conversation, you will find there is a comfortable distance. The comfort distance is three to seven feet. Generally, we don’t want people closer to us than three feet nor do we want them much further than five to seven feet. No one likes to carry on a conversation twelve to fifteen feet away. If people are too far away, we don’t have proper eye contact, we have to talk loudly, and we get interrupted. Therefore, we need to consider our socialization space and keep it such a way we can use it.
In Grandma’s house the living room often became nothing more than a big hall. The front door opened into the living room, another entry would go off to the bedroom wing, and another doorway was going into the kitchen. We found ourselves traipsing back and forth through the living room. We put the television in one corner where the radio used to go.
Great Grandma’s house had parlors. These parlors were rooms off the living room near the front door that were spectacularly nice for conversation. They were usually eight feet by ten or twelve feet. With a couch and a few chairs in it, it made an extremely nice place just to sit down and discuss world events with your friends and family.
After the word picture is complete, start designing, or turn your ideas over to a designer to start creating the plan. Once the designer has the word picture, it usually goes pretty fast. It is also amazing how the use of the word picture will size a house more appropriately. Many people try to start with the over-all size of the home first and then fit the rooms inside it. In most cases, they wind up with a home that is too big. One of the saddest things we run into is people who start with a home too large and money too small. After building a while, they run out of funds and cannot finish their home the way they wanted in the first place. We would much rather have the word picture define the size of the home and then build a home that is appropriate. The money available must be part of the word picture.
Another item that needs to be considered when designing a home is what I call a compound home. A compound home has more than one or two buildings in it. For instance, there may be a dome for the main house and another dome for a guest house. Each main area could be in its own dome, with all the individual domes connected. We do not want to get carried away with too many domes; but on the other hand, we don’t need to confine everything to the interior of a rectangular house. A compound home can have some big advantages. If a family is large, they need more space; but as the children leave home, some of the space can be rented, or used as a guest house. Maybe, we want to start off with a small dome for the main house and later add a larger dome for the main house and turn the small one into a guest house. After the family is gone, turn the guest house into a rental house. When there is only one person left, move into the guest house and rent the main house. What I am saying is take a new look at the design of houses.
In the early days before air conditioning, we built tall narrow houses so the wind would blow through them. With the advent of central air conditioning, we built square houses that had the least amount of surface exposed, in order to conserve energy cost. With the advent of the Monolithic Dome, this problem with the exterior walls is eliminated. Therefore, we can build a multiple dome home without a severe energy penalty. Another major advantage of the compound home is versatility. Many people would like to have a swimming pool in their house. The swimming pool “eats” the house. There is so much humidity it destroys the furniture and can virtually destroy a home. By putting a swimming pool in its own dome this problem is solved. A party area can go in the pool dome. It can be locked to protect the curious when it is not in use.
Another trick we do not use very often in US housing is the multiple-use room. We build a nice, big, beautiful bedroom and never use it for anything but sleeping. Could one put a Murphy bed in it and use it for a day time study? Maybe we can put a Murphy bed or fold out sofa in the guest room for guests, but also use that room for crafts or an office. In many homes the washer and dryer can fit very nicely in the bathroom. The combined space takes up much less space than having a separate room for each function.
Size of Home vs. Income
We also need to decide how much of our income we want to spend on a house. There is no need to be a slave to a home. Lenders tell us that two and a half to three times our annual salary should be the cost of our home. Why does it need to be that high? If we can build a very satisfactory home for half that much, why not do it? Many people get caught in the syndrome where they just keep building bigger and bigger, because someone else is building bigger and bigger. Consider how the cost of the home cuts into play time. Would you rather have a family vacation every other year or have a bigger home? In any case the wants, desires and needs of the family need to be added into the word picture. To some people it is extremely important to have a real nice home as a status symbol. If that is important, that is what should be built. I am a great believer in building for people what they want. The only problem is, many times we wind up building what other people want or what convention calls for, not necessarily what we really wanted. The purpose of drawing the word picture is to identify the items that are important to us in our new domicile.