Editor's Note: Small Pleasures
There’s a misconception out in the world that custom houses are all lavish and huge. Certainly that rarefied segment of the market exists, but they are not the whole story of custom design and construction, and despite their attractions, they may not even be the most interesting subset of the trade.
The houses in Volume 2 of Residential Design are all extremely custom, but none is especially large nor extravagant. They represent a variety of goals and ideas, carefully processed and thoughtfully executed. Most had very tight budgets and big ambitions.
Some people think smaller houses must be easier to do. And perhaps in certain ways they can be—they can take less time to build, use fewer materials, and require less complex systems to run them. But it real ways, they are just as challenging to design as larger houses and even more difficult to get just right.
With less house to hide behind, mistakes are often easier to see—the clinkers are more resonant. If a large house is a long, meandering novel, a small house is like a poem. Each design choice must fit the rhythm perfectly. It’s often as much about editing out what’s not essential as it is about choosing what to include.
The houses in Volume 2 of RD are all under 3,000 square feet, some are substantially smaller. Each has an unusual program or set of circumstances that drove design and distinctiveness. What they have in common, and this was a coincidence I discovered while writing about them, is nearly all have some manner of accessibility baked into the program.
Perhaps it really isn’t a coincidence. The most recent Home Trends survey from the American Institute of Architects points to an increase in accessible design requests from clients. That’s gratifying to see, because it was not long ago that even when I set out looking for houses with accessible features, I couldn’t find much to publish. And finding really good accessible design was a Herculean labor to achieve.
It’s so smart to think about these measures ahead of time, because retrofitting for accessibility is never easy, never cheap, and rarely pleasing from a design standpoint. Even if clients themselves don’t need the features immediately, their inclusion may make a friend or family member’s visit more comfortable. Ramped walkways, no-threshold showers, wide hallways, lower wall switches are all easy to design into a plan from the start. These are features that should make the cut, even in a short, sweet program.
What didn’t make the cut in our collection of houses? Complex arrays of materials. The tight budgets caused most of the paring, but all of our architects and builders said that extra discipline and a limited palette inevitably results in stronger, more cohesive projects.
Although smaller projects are rarely the most lucrative for residential pros, they can be very rewarding creatively. For whatever reason, the clients are frequently the most grateful and satisfying sort to work with, as well. And that’s no small thing.
S. Claire Conroy