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Sunday, February 08, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

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Excerpts from 'Home by Design'

Good design is about composition, or how such elements as windows, doors, rooflines and other elements all relate to each other, writes author Sarah Susanka.
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What is "it"? I first started thinking about buying a house in early spring 1986. ... one Saturday morning ... I found it. ... almost instantly, before I'd even set foot inside, I knew that this was it — this was the house for me. As I stood there on the threshold, all my thoughts about rooms and square footage fell by the wayside as I succumbed to the indefinable something that said "home" to me. ... After this first home-buying experience, I started thinking about what this "it" feeling was all about. ... What I discovered is that although almost everyone I spoke with about "it" knew what I was talking about, not one of them had the words to explain what "it" is.

A home by design: ... if the style of a house doesn't guarantee a particular character and quality of interior space, what does? In fact, there's something even more fundamental than style, but we don't really have a name for it. If you peel away the surface stylistic embellishments, you'll find some basic principles that govern the ordering of space and light to create the experiences of home that we crave. A house that's been designed using these principles is a home by design. The alternative, which happens when these principles are not understood, is a house that provides adequate shelter and plenty of square footage but which lacks the qualities of home.

On space: One of the most important things to understand ... is that we experience space not so much by quantity alone, but by the interconnections between one chunk of space and another. When space is divided into discrete areas, our senses tell us there's more there. It works on the same principle that parents use when asking a young child how many pieces of bread he or she wants for breakfast. When you cut one slice into four pieces, the child assumes it's getting more than if you were to leave the bread uncut. The eye recognizes multiple segments whether it's slices of bread, or chunks of space, and reads "more."

On light: Light is the great animator of space, and when placed with an artist's eye, it can make even a simple square room into a place you'll enjoy being in. It doesn't require a big budget to transform a very plain structure into a visual feast, just by understanding where to locate windows and light fixtures for maximum effect.

A sense of order: When I design a new house ... I'll work on the designs for both the outside and the inside simultaneously, to give it a sense of order and integrity. On the outside, I try to give the house a shape that fits into the neighborhood. ... I think about the composition of roof forms, so that the relative proportions of windows to wall surfaces, overhangs and roof slope all combine to look pleasing to the eye. The same kind of consideration is given to the inside as well.

On instinct: One of the key themes you'll find woven throughout this book is the importance of using our natural, physiological instincts regarding space and light to vitalize a design, and to make it feel like "home."

That's "it"! So that feeling of "this is it" turns out to be something definable after all. Although it can't be summed up in just a word or two, its attributes can be described, and it can be designed into a house, whether new or remodeled, to give it that ineffable quality that makes us want to settle in and stay a while.

Just like love, the chemistry between house and homeowner must be compelling, or all the preplanning to get the right number, size, and location of rooms will be worthless. ... This is the part of the house selection process that's been missing until now. With no words to describe the qualities of home that we so long for, we settle for much less than we know is possible and then are disappointed when it doesn't satisfy our desire for something more. ... It's really not that mysterious, but simply requires that you be able to look beneath the surface style to the principles of space, light, and order that animate it. When you really understand the concepts that follow, you'll know what it takes to turn your house into home, and you'll know that home isn't something accidental or ephemeral. "It" comes about "by design."

— Excerpted with permission from Sarah Susanka's "Home by Design"


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