Open plan kitchen

The significance of a well-designed quality home

The significance of a well-designed quality home

A client phoned me a while ago to inform me that he purchased a home I designed 15 years ago and they now want me to assist with additions and alterations. When I asked what made them buy this house instead of a number of others which were on the market at the time in the area, he replied by saying: “This was the only house which we could immediately see was designed by an experienced architect. Not only is the house positioned on the stand in such a way that it allows for future additions and enjoys good connectivity with the garden, but the aesthetics are considered and of course the spaces are practical and have a good flow. Also, it is clear that the choice of materials and finishes stood the test of time rather well.”

This comment and a recent conversation with an estate agent who told me that they have stock to sell, but the houses are not well designed and therefore do not attract buyers, prompted me to write a short blog on the subject. 

Herewith a few pointers to look out for when buying or designing a home:

First principles of design

Make sure the orientation of the structure optimizes solar gain by being north orientated in terms of fenestration and indoor-outdoor flow of living spaces. Further to this point, it is advisable to place the bathrooms, kitchen and garage on the south side of the dwelling. Does the siting on the land consider wind directions, views and privacy from neighbours? Is enough space allowed within the building lines to allow possible future extensions of a room or garage? These aspects cannot be changed later without major cost implications.

Connecting with context

The building should sit comfortably within its environs and be sympathetic to landscape features such as trees, indigenous vegetation, wetland areas, rivers, embankments, etc. It is important that the structure forms some kind of relationship with the particular environment, this includes consideration of other buildings in the surroundings as well as streetscape interface. Consider your structure as another element which must contribute positively to the broader built environment context which together defines the quality of the neighbourhood. A building is never read as an isolated object in space. 

Sustainable and resilient design which requires realistic levels of maintenance

Different climatic regions require different architectural responses to cope with the elements. Rainfall, water tables, wind, condensation, temperatures, etc. has to be considered when designing and specifying as it can reduce unnecessary energy use to keep the structure warm in winter and cool in summer. The type of roof design, walls and windows has to respond to these challenges. Sustainable technology such as thermal and photovoltaic solar as well as low-e glazing with superior insulation has become par-for-the-course. Rainwater harvesting and water-saving devices should always be part of the program.  

Ergonomic and anthropometric sensibility in the spaces

Design must not only look good but be practical in terms of functionality. Realistic dimensions of room sizes are critical. Built-in cupboards, kitchen and furniture must be considered as part of the design process and not be regarded as an afterthought. It must all be integrated during the design process. 

Interior air quality

It is noticeable how many contemporary houses have full height sliding doors with no openable top vent or side windows for fresh air ventilation. A bedroom for instance, with only windows on one side, can be very problematic in this regard as it allows no natural air movement through the room. This is not only important for thermal comfort, but also for your health. 

Appropriate material, detailing and finishes specifications

My one neighbour re-paints the north-west facing side of his house every single year because it is the direction from where the strong north-westerly wind drives the rain which causes damp problems. This is clearly inappropriate use of materials, poor detailing of the roof and wall interface as well as incorrect finishes which includes the plastered window sill. Materials must be specified which are practical and durable for the given context. The best materials will fail if the installation is not properly detailed in terms of waterproofing and finishing. 

Electrical layout and lighting

A poorly considered electrical layout can cause much frustration. The use of a room must be considered when power points and light switches are positioned. Allow for enough combination units to cater for your needs. Lighting – different spaces require different lux levels, dependent on the function. In a hallway or porch for instance, a low lux level of 10 is enough. Where there are stairs, about 25 lux is appropriate. In a kitchen you work with various tools and a lux level between 50 and 75 is recommended. In a study or library, you would require about 60 to 70 lux while in a bathroom 30 is enough.

Colour schemes

Much research has gone into colour theory to determine which colours are conducive to the various functions in a building. Certain cool colours such as pale blue or green, are more appropriate in work spaces while warmer colour such as peach, beige or yellow are better in rooms for rest for instance. Colour also plays a role in how we perceive the space, bigger or smaller. Hue values also make a difference. The extensive use of dark wood grain can have a slightly depressing effect on us. If not certain with your choices, rather go for a neutral colour scheme with a hint of cool or warm grey walls to start off with. Introduce highlights of colour with smaller elements such as upholstery. You can always re-paint and adjust tones later.  

Wellbeing: the experience of the space

When we walk into a room, our very first natural response is to perceive it in terms of its size in relation to the function. The space either appears too big, too small or just right. An over-scaled space, such as a too large bedroom, can make us feel unsafe, while a too small space can make us feel claustrophobic. Furniture and fixtures should be scaled to match the space proportionately. A smaller space requires smaller furniture while a bigger space can accommodate larger bulkier pieces.   

If a special feature of delight is incorporated such as a splendid view or unique ceiling design, our attention is usually drawn to it. The light level always influences our experience of a space. In day time we tend to expect a fair amount of natural daylight to experience the space as positive. At night time it becomes a matter of appropriate light conditions to fulfil a task, so it varies from room to room. Spatial flow through the spaces should be unhindered by unnecessary passage ways, corners and nooks to be conducive to a quality experience. 

Think carefully about the needs of the family members in terms of communal public space and activities, semi-private spaces and private spaces. We all have an equal need to socialise and be private. 

Be careful of too many steps, split levels and stairs as it limits its usefulness for people with small children, or people who are physically challenged as well as the elderly. Steps can potentially be dangerous at the best of times. Be mindful of a design which seems awkward or unbalanced. A glass table in the middle of a room for instance can create a feeling of unease. 
A house should be a safe place which makes you feel at ease and comfortable. It should also incorporate aspects of fun and delight which lifts the spirit. The importance of a well-designed quality home cannot be overemphasised in terms of contributing to your quality of life and securing your investment for resale value. Therefore, to spend about the same amount of money that an estate agent earns from selling your house on a responsible quality architectural service is a great investment.