Designing a home that is functional and supportive of its occupant’s lifestyle is a leap of faith – you may consider hundreds, or even thousands, of details toward a coherent design, but can not know the result until months or years later. Amping up the stress to get the design right is the fact that a house is most people’s greatest single financial outlay and, possibly, only purchased once. The ‘right’ design is personal to the needs of those who will occupy the house, the site on which it is built, and material considerations.
‘Good’ design goes far beyond the number of bedrooms, bathrooms, square footage, and architectural style. It goes far beyond a decision around ‘open concept’, or an eat-in kitchen, or finishes and fixtures. It is the result of synthesizing decisions on dozens of individual elements such as size and location of windows, relation of private to public areas of the home and to private and public areas of the site, and placement of the house relative to views, sunlight, and weather patterns.
This is the story of how my house design evolved given the constraints of my site, the greenhouse dimensions, the building code, and my personal requirements.
My site is comprised of 2.5 parcels with a public road on the east side and private road on the west side. There were pre-existing structures and septic system that I wanted to save. These constrained where I could place the house on the land. It also added complexity to manage who might approach from 3 directions (public road, private road, trailer/guest house) and what sort of accommodation must be made. Since my address is on the public road, I decided that would be the primary ‘public’ entry to the house. The west driveway and parking is maintained as private entry for the trailer or material delivery to the greenhouse.
My property is circled by tall evergreen trees that I wanted to save. The sun does not rise above the trees for much of the year but may shine through gaps in the trees throughout the day as the sun moves across the south from east to west. This constrained the amount of natural light available to the east, west, and north sides of the house.
There are no natural views to retain and no neighbors to the east, south, or west to consider privacy issues.
I could not afford the time or cost of a bespoke steel and glass greenhouse. Therefore, my greenhouse is a standard commercial agricultural “Gable 7500” package from Conley’s Manufacturing with a steel frame, twin-walled polycarbonate ‘glazing’, held in place by aluminum trim pieces. Although Conley’s has models with different roof styles, they all have a truss from sidewall to sidewall at gutter height. This constrained the house to no taller than this truss height minus a few inches.
The Gable 7500 is available in several lengths and widths and sidewall heights. I selected the longest (60 ft) and widest (35 ft) that would fit in the space I had available. I selected the tallest sidewall (12 ft) that translated to the roof peak (24 ft) below the maximum height above grade allowed by my local code. The length and width constrained the house’s length and width, its location within the greenhouse, and uses of the space not consumed by the house.
Even the ‘clear’ twin-walled polycarbonate panels are not clear like glass would have been so they would have been an issue had there been views to maintain. To the contrary, the partially transparent panels partially obscure unattractive views toward the trailer, rainwater tanks, and cabins. This provided some flexibility in window and shower size and placement.
Watch the roofers dodge these trusses applying the roofing membrane, on YouTube https://youtu.be/zSX1XkTEoIk
I could not afford the time or cost to appeal applicability of any building code to my house so it is designed and built to code as if it were a stand-alone dwelling without the shelter from the greenhouse. This came into play mostly in trade-offs between useable floorspace versus building materials (including cost and availability of both the material and tradespeople to install them). For example, exterior walls are framed with 2×4 instead of 2×6 for the added 2″ of floorspace per wall but only spray insulation could meet the required R-value inside that narrow of a wall cavity.
Since I’m approaching retirement age and expect this to be my last home, my primary requirement was to be able to age in place as long as possible. This translated to all living space on a single level and wheelchair accessible, including around 3 sides of the bed. This translated to all interior doors are 36″ rather than standard 30″, no threshold to access the shower, there are views to the greenhouse in all directions from chair or bed height, and many other details large and small.
The trailer provides separate space for guests so the house required bed and bath for only one person or a couple.
There had to be a space just inside an exterior door to contain dirt when coming from the garden or wet when coming from the pool.
The house’s public spaces should look out to the water features and/or sitting area and ornamental garden in the greenhouse but not to the ‘working garden.’ Conversely, the house’s private spaces should not be visible from the sitting area or ‘public space’ within the greenhouse.
No windows are needed on the north side and the north side should be screened from the neighbor’s view.
Rectangular shape is preferred as the fastest, easiest, and least expensive construction.
This ‘bubble diagram’ was the first document given to the architect based on the ‘public’ spaces on the east side facing the main entry from the public road. It shows the layout of the rooms relative to each other and each function’s approximate portion of floor space.
Relative To Greenhouse Features
The next iteration was a first attempt to put the house into context with the water features and garden inside the greenhouse. But it was before finding the Conley’s greenhouses and assumes the greenhouse is relatively square. Although it is unconventional to have a shower on the ‘front’ of the house, this room layout matches my grandparent’s home. They had a door from the patio to the shower to come in wet from lake swimming and judicious window-placement provided adequate privacy.
The Architect’s Plan
I found the Conley’s greenhouses while waiting for the architect’s drawings so there were now dimensions to fit the house into. The architect’s first response to my brief included several rectangular floorplans ranging between 300 to 500 square feet and one non-rectangular floorplan. I quickly narrowed down to 2 of the rectangular plans and this one that I, then, spent a couple weeks editing to determine which could be modified to what I wanted.
As delivered, this plan violates a few of my requirements and I was a little surprised that, before giving this to me, the architect hadn’t made a few of the adjustments I ended up making. For example: he should have flipped the plan so that the kitchen is on the east/right side and bedroom is on the west/left side, and faced the wardrobe toward the powder/dressing room rather than the entry. There are, also, purposeless indents that add cost and complexity to the roof, wall framing, and foundation.
It was, however, a good start to build off of and was the base for what became the final plan.
The final plan meets all of my requirements and feels quite spacious even though it is only 400 square feet interior floor space. There are no windows on the north side, and no window in the powder room, but skylights over the kitchen and powder room provide both light and views to the greenhouse. The kitchen and livingroom receive light as soon as the sun rises but the bedroom does not – yea!
Full sized appliances, except the refrigerator is only 24″ wide. Instead of roll-up garage-style doors in the livingroom and bedroom, they are full light swing-out doors.
It’s been 3 months since I moved into the house and all in all it is everything I’d hoped it would be. I love it!
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For those who are interested in the elements of design in great detail, I used this book for a ‘checklist’ of elements to consider when designing my home. I highly recommend it. A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander.