A good house is often a simple house. The best housing stock in this country is made up of straightforward and robust buildings, with well-proportioned spaces and masses of natural light — often made from materials that are locally or widely available. They are easily adaptable, simple to work on, very versatile and beautifully uncomplicated.
Complexity is a Common Self Build Mistake
One of the biggest mistakes that self builders make when designing their home is allowing too much unnecessary complexity into their builds, and mistaking ‘features’ for architectural interest. The best buildings, historically, didn’t have gimmicks — they didn’t need them because they got the fundamentals right. Irrespective of cost, the best buildings often have the most simple forms.
I believe quite strongly that complexity is unnecessary in most housing projects. You don’t need added-on porches, hips, valleys or dormers, or any other frippery; a house doesn’t need visual clutter to make it beautiful and more interesting.
Dividing a House into Rooms Doesn’t Always Make Sense
So often I see buildings that are too complex in how they are planned. Historically, we needed separate little rooms because heating was difficult and houses were badly insulated — whereas now, with good-quality affordable insulation on offer, we can free our houses from the rabbit warren-like spaces of Victorian times. Yet, somehow, we are all still conditioned to think of houses as a series of little rooms.
Nowadays, space is at a premium – with huge pressure on land and huge pressure to make buildings more affordable – yet we continue to plan houses in relatively lazy ways, with little hallways and corridors — both of which are often unnecessary if you plan effectively.
Unless you have a three storey building, you don’t need a protected stairwell, and there’s almost nothing worse than entering a building at the end of a long, thin passageway. Given that a hallway will be costing you upwards of £1,000/m², make it work harder — or steal the space to use in a neighbouring room.
This Georgian townhouse in the Cotswolds shows how stunning use of a single material can be
Being Selective with Material Choices
Material choices almost always benefit from being from a limited or constrained palette. My mentor, Glenn Murcutt, used to eulogise about traditional buildings in the Cotswolds, which had what he called an “amazing continuity of material.”
What he meant by this was that Cotswold buildings used the same material for floors, walls, roofs, window mullions, etc. While Cotswold stone is now pretty expensive, the point is that you can never have too much of the right material.
You don’t need to change materials, add panels of different materials, or ‘break up’ the building: use one material and use it comprehensively and cohesively. Think of rural barns, or what the Georgians did — they didn’t need to add panels of an additional material just for the sake of it. It’s this ‘just for the sake of it’ approach that is such a problem for house design, and detracts from what has always made good buildings in this country, or any other — simplicity and an economy of means.
Estate agents will always tell you that ‘features’ in the form of kitchens or bathrooms are key. I’ve no doubt kitchens and bathrooms are important, but estate agents are wrong. You don’t need to lavish money on a kitchen, and certainly the atmosphere and character – or the quality of space and light – of the whole house is far more important than a fitted kitchen. In a way, I believe that the fitted kitchen is a kind of obscene invention.
We never used to have fitted kitchens, and there’s something awful about ghastly overpriced piles of melamine and chipboard that masquerade as good value or good quality. Far better to be inventive and construct your own. We’ve built kitchen worktops from cast concrete for very little money, and they’re far more beautiful than almost anything else you can buy — and far cheaper too.
Space: Quality v Quantity
It’s space that is the most important aspect of any house. Not just the amount of it, but more the quality — how it works, how it feels, how it is planned to make the most of every square inch.
Remember, a house isn’t (just) a series of cellular spaces, but instead, an environment that is planned around you, your needs and the way you want to live. It’s essential to think about the way you live as the key driver for how your building is planned.
How and where do you want to come into the building? How will you see out? What views do you intend to capture? Where will you place your living spaces to take full advantage of these views? What will the space feel like? (I don’t mean what the finishes are — I mean what will the raw space feel like?) What size and shape? Where and how will the light come in?
Open plan living suits many homeowners better than a separate dining room and kitchen layout
Windows and Light
Light is perhaps one of the most important things to consider. Windows aren’t things that get placed so as to be like the house next door — think of them as portals to the world, where key aspects of the surroundings can be framed or revealed, or closed off.
Accordingly, where will the windows be? How high or how low? What shape and size? Similarly, how will you avoid overheating and too much solar gain? How then will your building sit in its context? How will you approach your building? How will you enter, and circulate? What will the sequence of the spaces be, and what is their overall hierarchy?
Focus on the Essentials
It’s hard to resist the instinct at the beginning of the journey of designing a house to go shopping for different features or products. But it is essential to resist this temptation, and instead focus on the idea for the way the spaces will work, where the openings will go, and how these things will be unified into an overall form.
Crudely, these things are the most important aspects of any build. Get these things right, and the fittings and finishes are unimportant; get these wrong and no finishes or fittings can compensate.
1. Simple forms can be effective and beautiful. Think about getting the fundamentals right and the rest will follow.
2. Break with the belief that a room has to be a series of little rooms. Think about the available space as a whole and work out how you can best use it.
3. You can never have too much of the right material (and buying it in bulk will cut costs too).
4. Be inventive with use of materials to build your own kitchen or bathroom.
5. Design around how you live, so that you don’t have to live around your design.
6. Don’t forget the importance of windows and light. This should be integral to design.