I want to talk about the alternatives to opting for the ‘standard’ options. Clearly, the key thing in any build is space, light and relationship to context; but the assembly of a building is equally important. The architect Mies van der Rohe, for example, told us that ‘God is in the details’.
Common Interior Mistakes
There’s nothing worse than a lazily applied skirting, that terrible developer-spec planted on bullnose; stuck on because, well, buildings have skirtings, don’t they? But they needn’t.
I’m not a big fan of ubiquitous shadow gaps either — in a way they’ve become a bit of an architectural cliché, and they can be tricky to get crisp. Far better just to finish plaster at wall/floor junctions with a stop bead which controls cracking and provides a sharp, cost-effective junction with minimal effort.
Next on the list is the architrave. I’ve never liked architraves in any building in the last 70 years. They seem unnecessary and, again, represent lazy thinking. It is nicer to project the door lining a few millimetres past the plaster (or other wall finish) and, again, let it meet the projecting door lining with a stop bead.
While we are on the subject of doors, they themselves often seem to represent the pinnacle of lazy thinking. A house isn’t a series of rooms that have prescribed functions, but more a series of spaces that contain a series of activities that need zoning. There’s a strange obsession with the door in this country, and I’ve never understood why. First up, why do we need so many? How often do you close them? And why do they have to be the same size and proportion in a bespoke self build? Even, or especially, a low-cost one needs rethinking from first principles.
In my house, we have no internal doors upstairs and only a couple downstairs. Instead, there are low-cost, non-structural plywood partitions that zone areas into varying degrees of privacy, and in theory can be easily moved as our familial demands change. Similarly, I’m reminded by how few doors or even separate rooms many of the houses I design actually have. A new 300m² house I’ve sketched out recently has, downstairs, a door into the utility, a door into a separate office, and that’s about it. I’m also pretty sure that those doors won’t be standard doorsets either, but probably made up on site from a couple of sheets of plywood laminated together, with the open edges showing, and nor will they be standard sizes.
This home designed by Penny Shankar, is a fine example of how it pays to consider every detail. The function of walls have been carefully thought about and left at three-quarter height to allow light through — even the doorways are left without doors. Image by Invisible studio
Common Exterior Mistakes
The obsession with the front door is another oddity. There’s a sense that a front door needs to make a kind of ‘impression’ and, again, too often people assume a standard yet ‘luxury’ doorset will make an impression on an otherwise utterly standard entrance.
I’ve no doubt that the way into a building is important to define and make legible, but why oh why do so many of us insist on an awful, barren porch at the end of a long, dark, thin corridor? A way in to a building is a series of formal or less formal ‘portals’ and the sequence of arrival – the ‘threshold’ if you like – is such an important thing to get right. I’m slightly over obsessed with this bit of the building, but trust me when I say that an expensive standard doorset won’t transform a standard entrance.
Facias and Eaves
There’s nothing sadder than the eaves detail of most new houses. Where on earth did those awful projecting PVCu-clad eaves and fascias come from, and why do we need them? If I could make one single change to all new housing, I would banish these, and the houses would be immeasurably better.
Old buildings almost never had this type of overhang and they are much better for it. Sure, the detail – the relationship between wall and roof – needs thinking about a bit more (or rather designing) and not just accepting default industry standards. It’s a little harder to do, but I think that anyone designing a building has a moral responsibility to consider – and reconsider if necessary – every single detail. That is not to say there’s anything intrinsically wrong with standard things, it’s the mindset behind how they come together that matters.
Rainwater goods next — what’s with the horrible swan neck? Assuming you pare back your eaves like I’ve suggested above, you won’t need one anyway, but what is wrong with dropping a rainwater pipe straight down to the ground? Given that nice gutters can be expensive, low-cost, black rectangular (never half round, sorry) PVCu ones can look just fine, and be tucked neatly against a building with no eaves projection necessary.
Finally, glazing bars. One rule: you don’t want any. None. This isn’t medieval Britain where we can only make glass in tiny proportions, and on new buildings windows almost always look better without glazing bars. If you do need to divide up a huge glass pane in order to open it, always use an asymmetric divider to end up with two unequal panels and it will look far better.
These are the important issues when it comes to self building – the design detail, the material relationships – and it is these along with intelligent thought and consideration where you need to focus your thoughts when you are in the detailed design stages of your project. Get these right, and your project will sing.