The single-family home is a great American dream, one that so many of us have been fortunate to share; but as our attitudes and awareness grow and shift, so do the definitions of that dream. It’s time to redefine, to clarify what we’re after. It’s time to let go of the meaningless habits of over-consumption, artificiality, and toxicity that have become accepted in the past 50 years, and to embrace a new attitude toward the home in this country. It’s time for a manifesto.
The new dwelling:
- Shall be just big enough. No wasteful spaces, no unnecessary basements, no duplication of function (multiple dining areas, extra bathrooms, empty “formal” living rooms, towering foyers…). A small house means more family togetherness and more outdoor space: garden, play and discovery spaces, porches. The small house encourages you to go outside. But, to quote a client of mine, privacy and quiet are part of comfort too, so the definition of “small” will vary by family.
- Shall be efficient. Small is a good start in this regard, but it also must have proper window orientation and shading, a compact form, a superinsulated, airtight thermal envelope, and efficient lighting, appliances, and mechanical systems. This is not how it’s been done in the US, but it’s easy, actually, once you know how. It starts with a plan that flows well; storage is cleverly worked in throughout the house, and wherever possible, is moved outside the conditioned envelope; structure and cladding is considered from the outset to optimize material use. Energy modeling is done early in the design process so that the energy implications of design decisions can be understood.
- Shall promote health. No more toxic materials!– Natural materials with minimal finishes predominate. The house shall be mechanically ventilated with heat- or energy-recovery, ensuring filtered fresh air throughout and managed humidity. That’s the baseline of “do no harm,” but we must actually do good–see next.
- Shall promote nature-connections. No more sterile boxes that cut people off from the environment! Harmony with Nature is the foundation of health, arguably is the definition of health. Delightful use of sunlight, views to vistas, sky, and gardens enliven the interior. Enclosed outdoor spaces adjacent to the house promote indoor-outdoor flow and frequent use. Planters for vegetables, herbs, and flowers inside and out provide texture, fragrance, and food. Water is not seen as a problem to push away from the house, but an opportunity to create pools, rain gardens, even wetlands. The garden supports habitat. And the kitchen is an inspiring place to prepare good food!
- Shall be durable. No more throwaway finishes! The skin should not require frequent maintenance, but should stand up to its climate, rugged and long-lasting. Structure, finishes, and especially moving parts like windows shall be strong; and the materials within reach and at eye level on the exterior should be inviting.
- Shall be lovable. This is not about design dogma, a “look” or “style”–just authenticity. Some love a box, some love a gable; the new dwelling has a purpose and intrinsic character due to all the foregoing principles. As long as it meets these and resonates with its owners and surroundings, there is much room for expression and personalization–it needs to be loved.
Now go forth and build it.