Connection to the outdoors has become a topic that I talk about regularly with my clients, my students, and other architects. More often then not, a client comes to you with a site. There is something about that site that they love, and it is our challenge as architects to listen, understand, and encompass that design feature.
A large part of sustainable design is connecting with nature and using what you have on the site to create a better project. I was reminded of that last week as my students did their final presentations in their sustainable design class. I picked a challenging site where they had to decide to keep the existing building, or tear it down and start new. The view to the ocean was on the north facade, which is an extreme challenge for sustainable buildings. It was important for me to remind them that sustainable buildings must also be lived in, and it will be very difficult to convince a client to turn their backs on the view for increased energy performance in their home. Maybe i’m waxing nostalgic as the semester comes to an end, but I love to think that I get as much from my students every semester as I give them. I learn new things, I learn new ways to research, and I become a better architect as they learn to become architects themselves.
In the first single family home that I designed, I spent hours with google sketch up, photos of the site, and a layout to figure out exactly where each window went. Every window capitalizes on the view, the style of the home, the correct proportions, and a maximized energy efficiency per the clients budget. If I had to do it over again today I would change the type of insulation, but I would change very little about the geometry of the house. Learning to take advantage of what the site has to offer is one of the most rewarding parts of a project. Not every house fits in every location, but houses that become one with the landscape allow clients to take full advantage of the site.
Living in Maine this is a particular challenge. Maine is known as the “Vacation State” and for a lot of good reasons. We have the ocean, the mountains, and the lake. If you are a winter person and love skiing, you may find yourself in a chalet on the side of one of our ski mountains. If you love the ocean, you may find yourself on one of Maine’s unspoiled coastlines, and if you love the lake, there are plenty to choose from. But what happens when you’re on the wrong side of the lake, the wind is freezing as it whips across the surface in the “it’s still winter” season. That is the architects challenge, to blend the home to the landscape, use what is there to our advantage, and block the unwanted site characteristics.
Every design project should start with the site, and end with a beautiful home that both uses the landscape, and blends in. Farmers for years have been using technology that we consider “new and exciting”. They used the landscape for what they had, their houses faced South to absorb the sunlight during the daytime hours, and if you lived in New England, the barn connected to the house so you didn’t have to brave the tough winter weather to feed and care for your animals. Sure, today we don’t cut wood from the back 40 acres and keep our homes warm with a fireplace (or we shouldn’t) but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still use that pond for micro-hydro or the south facing sun to heat our home without a heating system. Technology is changing, and so is the way we use our sites, but the basic principles are still the same.
So ask yourself: Before I select this plan from a book and hire a contractor to build it, should I consider contacting an Architect to help me through the process? Can they help me situate the building on the site, review the plan for functionality, and give me a better project? I know that people perceive Architects as being expensive, or something that only wealthy people can afford. Can you afford not to spend the extra 10% on the biggest investment you are likely to make?