Thumbing the office copy of Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language recently, I was struck by how many of his ideas center on the idea of diversity in design. Alexander argues against homogeneity at every scale, from that of room furnishings to the design of cities. He’s so right. Our homes, offices, public places and urban landscapes all benefit from variety.
This is a concept we always consider when approaching a new design project. How can we create a large open space for gatherings, as well as small nooks for cosy solitary time? How can we ensure that ceiling heights, room sizes, and amount of natural light all vary, to allow for the diversity of different uses?
Pro tip: Make good use of Alcoves
In his pattern of “Alcoves,” Alexander says that “no homogeneous room, of homogeneous height can serve a group of people well. To give a group a chance to be together, as a group, a room must give them a chance to be alone, in one’s and two’s in the same space.”
A series of spaces, some large, and some small can serve different purposes. Some rooms are meant to host a party or gather a whole family, others (like a ground floor powder room) are for only one person at a time.
The proper order of things
Not only the diversity, but the arrangement of these different spaces is important. Again, Alexander, talking about the importance of an “Intimacy Gradient,” points out that you wouldn’t want to put that powder room at the front door, nor would you want the public space for guests to be right at the back of the house. “Unless the spaces in a building are arranged in a sequence which corresponds to their degrees of privateness, the visits made by strangers, friends, clients, family, will always be a little awkward.”
In a recent conversation with new clients we discussed which would be the best arrangement of sitting space, dining area and kitchen in a relatively open concept floor plan of the main house. The three elements worked equally well from a logical point of view in reverse order from the front door. Our question for them was: how public do you want your kitchen to be. Is it a service area where guests won’t go, or the center of your house? Since they said they love having big family gatherings in their kitchen and pulling guests into the whole house with it, we leaned toward placing the kitchen farther from the entry, to turn the whole main level into a public area when guests are present.
Design: how we “make” a variety of spaces
So how is this variety of different types of spaces to be achieved in a home? Ceiling height variation is key. Another classic Alexander pronouncement is “A building in which the ceiling heights are all the same is virtually incapable of making people comfortable.” That might be a bit strong of a statement but … its not totally untrue. The construction industry has doomed a lot of modern life to taking place in banal 8’-0” high boxes made of sheetrock.
When we do additions and remodels we try to break out of that 8’-0” box. If there is attic space above the 2nd floor we might create a lofty high ceilinged area in some rooms. If we place an addition at the back, it might step down to ground level, leaving the ceiling plane the same from existing kitchen to new den but a lower floor adding air and light to the back space.
We’ve talked earlier this year about how HIGH CEILINGS (BACKWARDS R) US and how ceilings with different heights are very important for interesting buildings and human comfort and happiness. Variety is the spice of life (thanks poet, William Cowper) and it is also a key ingredient in good buildings.