Americans build an extraordinary number of houses every year -- more than one million and counting. The evidence is all around us, in every once-vacant lot and former cornfield or meadow, in the woods at the edges of our cities and towns. But ask almost anyone who has watched the sprouting of new houses over the last three or four decades, and you'll hear the same refrain: Why are there so few houses with character out there? Why do they have to be so bland, so boring, and so much like all the others? Our houses don't seem real, truly meaningful, or authentic in our lives anymore.
I wrote this book to prove there is an alternative. With more thoughtfulness and awareness of what is possible (even without a huge budget), we can make homes that are truly distinctive and timeless. As an architect who has devoted my entire working career to designing houses, I find that the loss of distinctiveness in our houses is nothing short of tragic -- especially when the process of designing and building them is uncaring and the descriptions used to explain them are so often misleading. We seem to have lost our bearing about the importance of such basics as thoughtful siting or a pleasing and balanced exterior. When that happens, it's important to step back and take a fresh look at the fundamental principles that give a house character or distinctiveness. These principles -- the fundamental elements of timeless design -- are not mysterious. We can all understand and apply them to our houses again. That's what this book is about.
Distinctive houses avoid the sameness, blandness, and thoughtlessness of many new houses being built today. They are situated on their plots in the best possible way, present an honest and dignified face to the world, arrange rooms to make domestic life convenient and comfortable, and are sensuously and spiritually satisfying inside and out.
I believe that distinctiveness lives in the subtle balance between the site, the floor plan, the exterior elements, and the details. Each one of those elements, in turn, is made up of details that must be balanced just the same. The four key elements reinforce each other so that one seems to grow naturally out of the other and engenders a sense of timelessness. To illustrate these four major design principles, I've chosen to use houses recently designed by a number of American and Canadian residential architects. Architects don't always design the best houses, and some very good houses have been designed without an architect, but the houses shown here clearly illustrate how a balance between these elements can be achieved. Those who care deeply about their homes will find the houses especially appealing. Like an iconic New England farmhouse or a California bungalow, these are houses most of us would want to live in.
In the end, the concept of the book is simple: Better understanding of houses leads to better houses. By the time you've finished this book, you'll be able to look at a house and say not only that you like it but also why you like it and how you can apply its lessons in the design of your own home.
This search for timelessness is something I've experienced personally. My wife and I spent many months looking for an older house to renovate outside of Boston. The neighborhood we finally chose is filled with a mix of older and newer houses -- and almost without exception, the older homes have more character, more grace, and more livability. The exterior shapes and interior spaces of the house we settled on were better proportioned and more elegant than those of newer houses.
Needless to say, this realization was a little disheartening for a residential architect. Why were there so few new houses with the same appeal? It was that experience that finally convinced me to write this book. For years, I had designed homes for other people and had preached my concerns about the poor quality of most houses being built, but it wasn't until I faced the cold reality of the current housing market that I realized how dire the situation had become. I know we can do better. We have done it before, and we can do it again. My hope is that the following pages will inform and support all of you who still believe that distinctive, timeless houses of lasting character are important and possible.