Pacific Northwest | June 22, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineJune 22, 2003seattletimes.com home
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ON FITNESS
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PREVIOUS ISSUES OF PACIFIC NW


WRITTEN BY JEROME GAGNON

The Elements Of Home
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Through 'Patterns,' we make space that's private, social, safe

Although marketing studies have identified what today's home buyers want — spacious master suites with luxurious baths, family room/kitchen combinations and soaring ceilings among the "must haves" — the elements that make a house a home have remained elusive, as well as subjective.

Now, 25 years after architectural guru Christopher Alexander's classic, "A Pattern Language," defined more than 200 "patterns" that link the way a building is designed with the way it's experienced, a follow-up book elaborates and clarifies that groundbreaking approach.
 
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The commons porch offers a strong sense of refuge because it is so substantial. Its solidity is reinforced by the solid wall behind it, a generous 12-foot depth with a railing, substantial support columns and a solid roof overhang.
Northern California architects Max Jacobson and Murray Silverstein, who were part of Alexander's effort to establish a "universal design language" in the 1977 book, have joined architectural partner Barbara Winslow to explore the 10 key patterns that elicit the comforting feelings associated with home. "Patterns of Home, The Ten Essentials of Enduring Design" (Taunton Press, 2002, $35), "gives back to home owners the tools to make a house a truly wonderful place to live," writes Sarah Susanka in her foreword to the book.

"The application of each of these ideas can transform a house into a far more evocative place — one of integrity and substance," she adds.

More than 400 photographs of 33 custom homes in Washington, Oregon and California, as well as points East, are a testament to that. You won't find a pseudo-European manse with sweeping circular staircase among the lot. Nor vast marble baths, nor cookie-cutter cabinetry.
 
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In the central core of the house (the commons), all the functions are arranged in a sequence that runs from the most protected — the kitchen — through the dining and living areas to the most open — the covered porch on the outer end.
What you will see are generous public areas of kitchen, family and dining-room combinations. Developers have capitalized on the trend, but with far less insight; otherwise congenial "great rooms" in developer models are often segregated from the more formal parts of the plan. In a throwback to the Victorian era, a token living room commonly serves as a kind of parlor or showroom that goes virtually unused except as access to the rest of the house.

In the well-patterned home, however, the free-flowing social core is balanced with semi-private spaces that hug its "edges" — cozy nooks, built-in window seats, study areas and fireside retreats.
 
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The Vashon Island home designed by Tom Bosworth features three "houses" — bedrooms, commons, studio — all oriented toward the views below. Each building has a covered porch that's slightly different from the others.

Seattle-based architect Tom Bosworth has created an elegantly understated house on Vashon Island that perfectly illustrates what the authors refer to as a sense of "refuge." Traditional elements on the outside — simple gables, wide porches and bay windows — blend with the free-flowing plan indoors; the wide-open spaces of the great room contrast with more intimate areas of the adjacent dining, sitting and music alcoves. The arrangement offers the pleasures of togetherness while leaving open the possibility for solitary pursuits. Bedrooms are in a separate structure linked to communal rooms by a short hall, giving an extra measure of privacy as well as a sense of transition.
 
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Once inside the entry, you turn left onto the path to the commons and the studio beyond — passing gracefully between the kitchen on one side and the dining table on the other without disturbing activity in either space.
Although the straightforward gables and plain columns of the exterior are unassuming, the home is hardly modest in either scale or amenities. Another building on the property — a studio linked to the main house by an outdoor deck — completes the compound. Still, the principles used to integrate this finely crafted residence to its site and to achieve a sense of shelter in light-filled spaces are applicable to less-ambitious homes.

Perhaps in their next book the authors will showcase more affordable houses, as well as remodeling jobs large and small. What would patterning proponents do to revitalize a 1970s split-level model, for instance? Can patterning contribute viable design solutions to the current housing crisis? Finding answers to questions such as these may encourage innovative ways of using space while enhancing the experience of being part of it.
 
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An alcove off the kitchen offers a space to eat and a private "edge" off the core. The cupola high above the kitchen captures precious Northwest light.
The 10 Principles

Both older and new houses can be made more livable by following the 10 principles examined in "Patterns of Home." They are:

Inhabiting the Site: Frank Lloyd Wright led the movement to integrate house and site. "The place to start is to think of the house and its site as a single thing, but also as parts shaped by a larger environment," the authors reiterate. Do-it-yourselfers and speculators often ignore the notion, resulting in ill-conceived add-ons as well as surreal "transplants" — poorly executed visions of antebellum mansions, for instance.

Creating Rooms, Outside and In: The most successful outdoor places "use the elements of the building to help define them." Generous porches created by extended gables and an outdoor deck defined by the main house and the studio are two such examples in architect Tom Bosworth's innovative plan for the Vashon Island house featured here.
 
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The piano alcove is another private "edge" off the main dining area in the common core.
Sheltering Roof: While a roof is primarily a defense against weather, a home must also open itself to the light and warmth of the sun. The "archetypal" gable form may be accented by dormers, balconies and bays that not only provide light and air, but articulate the private spaces within.

Capturing Light: "Arrange interior spaces to gather light, each according to its needs, over the course of a day and over the course of the seasons." Architect Bosworth used a cupola and clerestory windows to bathe the Vashon home's kitchen in light, while multiple French doors brighten the interior.

Parts In Proportion: Just as the human form contains many parts, each with a clearly defined function, the interaction of many design patterns forms an organic whole — the sum of which is greater than its parts. "Good houses" illustrate a number of patterns. The key is balance: larger spaces nurturing smaller spaces.
 
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The bedroom end of this passageway is marked with an intentional pause — two steps up and a forced turn to the right or left indicate the privacy of this wing.
The Flow Through Rooms: The "open plan," popularized in the 1960s, continues to offer home owners a feeling of spaciousness as well as flexibility. "Organize the main social spaces of the house — kitchen, dining, living/family rooms — as a single flowing, common space," the authors recommend. At the same time, a centralized traffic pattern such as a glassed-in gallery can offer surprises by connecting the social areas of the house to the private areas.

Private Edges, Common Core: Radiating from the heart of the home — which might be a light-filled kitchen or two-story living room — are the solitary spaces that occupy its "edges." Alcoves, study areas and fireside inglenooks are examples.

Refuge and Outlook: Wings of the Vashon design are slightly flared to expose rooms to wider views of Mount Rainier while broad overhangs emphasize the feeling of refuge. Indoors, contrasting high and low ceiling levels emphasize the sense of comfort.

Places In Between: A porch or breezeway functions as a transitional space, linking indoors and out, while adding a window seat in a hallway can do double duty as a gallery or reading area.

Composing With Materials: The last pattern "can be used to think about the building as a whole and its relationship to its site," say the authors. In a well-known example of masterful composition, the multiple horizontal extensions of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater in Western Pennsylvania emphasize the dramatic formations of rock outcroppings below. Less spectacular, but perhaps more gratifying, is the harmonious use of rustic materials such as hand-hewn siding on a cabin.

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