Saturday, December 26, 2009

Contest House - solar orientation, street orientation

Orienting a house design to the sun is easy. But put it on a small urban/suburban site, introduce a street grid, suddenly everything may not be going your way.

We admit that we've designed ourselves into this corner to a degree. We've made a decision to use an asymmetrical massing for the house which in turn dictates which way the house massing must be oriented for the sun. Its not completely a fabrication however as the asymmetrical profile does serve the small footprint of the house allowing us to make a 1.5 story design on a narrow dimension. But it does impose restrictions such as the dictate on solar orientation. Working with such limits introduces compromises which can be at once necessary and pleasing as they can create unexpected quirks or complexities to a design. And so we have here with our Lagom House as we strive to create variations on the design to accommodate different site orientations while maintaining the necessary solar orientation.

I've hinted at this in the past posts on the design process as I've been developing all three versions of the house concurrently, yet I've been using only one to share the progress of the design. So new we have three prototypes, two for streets running roughly east west, one for the north side of the street with the sloped roof facing the street, and one for the south side with the sloped roof facing the rear yard. The third version for north south streets slopes the roof towards the side yard.

The south side version is what we've been looking at, so lets look at how the floor plan shifts for the north side. The ground floor plan is essentially the same except for the flip of the relative direction of the stair. The front door shifts slightly towards the living room, and the foot of the stair is now right beside the entry foyer. This is not at all a bad arrangement and still retains the ability to step up and through the landing and proceed to the kitchen. A little bit more subtle is the change in orientation for the bedrooms, now facing the front yard rather than the back yard. This is not a great compromise in privacy, but some people may have a distinct preference.

The east west version makes greater compromises. First the plan never really makes an complete change over to the narrow deep orientation as it still relies on access to a reasonable side yard. The kitchen retains a door now on the side of the house, and the living areas dual doors are now shared one on the side and one to the rear. The entry consumes a good portion of the "service corridor" portion of the floor plan in this scheme. While there is a bit more storage as a result the home office area and utility room suffer for the loss of space to the foyer. It is possible that some of the mechanical equipment could find a place under the stair or in the new storage cabinets running on the outside wall between the kitchen and living room, but I did not want to assume that while laying out the plan.


  1. I know, everyone's a critic, but I really don't like how the landing is situated in either layout - I really think it would drive me crazy! Especially when it's in the living room, you either have to walk up and down stairs or into the entrance/hallway to go from the kitchen to the dining room area. Personally, I also think the space would read bigger if there wasn't a wall on the side of the stairway by the kitchen - I think I would like it open above and either open below or with storage. I don't know if it would be possible to have the landing upstairs which would help further separate the master suite from the other BRs. Just my two cents.


  2. The variations you describe are entirely possible, with the exception of moving the landing upstairs - that my create a headroom issue downstairs. However a steeper stair might make it possible.

    The degree of openness from kitchen to living area is an interesting point of departure though. I've strived in all my designs to make the kitchen part of the open living plan. Yet at times like the holidays that we are in the midst of I always speculate on the wisdom of that choice. In any case I thought it would be useful to work on a design that had a discrete kitchen for a change. Now you could certainly build this house with the kitchen wide open, and the stair as a divider. And I do really like the idea of an open riser stair with a kitchen wall or not. At the same time I need to also position the house as build-able with the lowest common denominator - meaning basic stairs that would be close in below. I'm going through the exercise of adapting one of my plan sets for a builder to price it similarly to the other spec homes he builds, and the reality of the market is little makes it through this kind of value engineering - certainly not open riser stairs. This has always been the basic challenge here - can you make a good design that can stand up to commodity construction. Fancy designs may help sell plans, but are little help for people being able to build what we draw. I'm just trying to close that gap.

  3. I agree with Joe that the stairway landing seems a bit of an obstacle. I think a steeper stairway might be really helpful, and not at all out of place in a house of this size. If the ceiling height is a typical 8', you can probably reduce the number of treads and risers to eliminate the landing. A 13 tread stairway would only take 117". In addition to allowing better circulation, it would greatly simplify and reduce the cost of the construction of the stairway. Straight-run prefab stairways are pretty much the norm nowadays in affordable houses.

    Have you considered doing a version of the plan for the north-south streets (vertical orientation above) with the living/dining area in the front? Many people might find that more appealing. It would put the kitchen near the office and utility area. Walking through the living room to get to the utility room to do laundry seems a bit odd. Also, the view into the half bath straight in line with the front door kind of bothers me.

  4. I don't agree with the perception of the stair as an obstacle. I see it as an element that "increases" the distance between the living area and the kitchen - the effort to step up and then back down makes the path longer, and causes you to enter the stair, and then leave the stair - rather than step from one room to another. This notion may seem subtle, but it effects the experience of the house in a profound way. This is very important in a small house. For carrying a tray to the dining table you can simply take the path without steps - its longer, and that is the point. Now all this does not work as well in the north side plan, but that is the nature of the compromises.

    Now as an alternate to that, yes, you can make the stair steeper, but in my mind that again makes a house feel smaller. I like stairs to be gradual and comfortable. But customers ultimately build what they want and I've seen a similar stair in the Tray House that had a landing for the same reason built without on the two examples I've seen. Here is may or may not be as simple to do this. The ceilings are 8ft tall on the ground floor, but the floor system is 18" deep open trusses. This is to facilitate running duct work for climates that will use ducted HVAC given the slab does not allow for underfloor ducts. So this opens up the possibility of using a shallower floor system and shortening the stair, and maybe eliminating the landing, or raising the ceiling somewhat if that is the preference.

    The east west oriented version continues to have the biggest compromises. I agree that this is a good candidate for moving the laundry upstairs - carrying that through the living room would not be the best - however I have to confess that I carry my laundry through the living room on my way to our basement laundry. No dire fall out of that condition yet - lets just keep perspective on how good or bad the situation is. In a similar vein the powder room half a house away from the front door makes little imposition on propriety. Remember to pull the door not quite all the way closed, but a polite amount, when you are done ;-) In my office the vestibule is 5ft x 5ft, and the bathroom is directly opposite the entry door. Despite the fact that the door is always left open I still have to direct visitors to the restroom. The only person who will notice that powder room is your plumber.

  5. I forgot to comment on the living vs kitchen. Yes - I've looked at it and I think the entry/office/utility/powder room zone of the house would actually work better in that configuration. But I could not get over my preference that the living space be towards the more private zone to the rear with direct access to the yard. Admittedly this is tinted by my years of experiences with Philadelphia row homes.