The Evolution of a House Design

The path to a satisfying building design is not linear, and it is often quite long.

I often read other creative individuals describe the ingredients to a successful creative effort. How does a choreographer come up with a new dance? How does a painter produce a painting? How does a poet...and so on? Inevitably, these people describe the long hours, the starts, stops, and regressions, and the commitment to working at their task until the work of art is satisfying.
In this project, called the Peru House, we are at this moment still in schematic design. In other words, there is a lot of road ahead. We have traveled some distance, but my sense is there are insights still out there that have yet to be incorporated into this project. There are elements that will be thrown out. There will be transitions between elements that will feel much better, when we arrive at them.
Our first rendering for the first client meeting is shown here.
Where did this rendering come from? It did not jump out of a hat.

The initial sketches for this project came after spending several hours looking at precedents. We looked at built works by architects ranging from Julia Morgan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Louis Kahn. We looked at Donald Judd.
We then sketched out the major plan elements by function: Private, Public and Guest. This would be a single family residence that could support many guests. The public area is shared.
Once the rectiliear diagrams were developed, we began to look at solar and view conditions that came with the site. We recognized a tension between the two. The view was to the north. The sun was to the south.
We began to see an affinity for a scheme based on “view wedges” that would allow significant south-facing exposures, and a materiality idea based on concrete and its use as a planar material.

Scheme 1 laid out the rooms identified at an initial meeting with the client. The major elements are the shooting range and weapons; kitchen and great room, 3-car garage, guest suite, and master suite. Secondary rooms include bathrooms, closets, utility rooms and circulation.

Our own internal deliberations on the initital Scheme 1 looked at small geometry tweaks that could make the building a bit more successful. Dead space was removed, certain walls followed either one grid system or another.

Feedback from the first client meeting led us to mirror the scheme left to right. We also changed the north, or upper, side of the house. The idea was to create a concave elevation that would start to define an outdoor courtyard area.

Scheme 4 showed refinements to Scheme 3. How should the cluster of rooms around the front entrance work? There was an outdoor covered area at the front door, a mud room, closets, and a powder room. We played with the relative sizes of these rooms and their relationship to one another.
The curved north elevation becomes much smoother in Scheme 4.

Scheme 4 also showed development of the basement and second floor. To wit, the basement grew significantly. The weapons room is much bigger, and an indoor pool and gym were added to the program.
The shooting range runs down the middle of the house. To go from the pool/gym to the weapons room, one must cross the shooting range. We would soon realize this was a liability.

Scheme 5 led to another flip. Part of this was in response to the very long route between the garage and the kitchen. How far can one expect to carry groceries? Scheme 5 made that route as short as possible by incorporating a walk-through pantry between the garage and kitchen.

Scheme 6 shortened the distance between garage and kitchen over Scheme 4, while at the same time using a standard arrangement of garage, front door and mud room. The kitchen is also freed on its southern elevation from being blocked by the garage.

Scheme 7 flips the house once more. This is in response to the owner, who wishes the master bedroom be on the left as you approach the house.

Scheme 8 flips the garage geometry without flipping the whole house. Whereas the garage in Scheme 7 is very tight for three cars, Scheme 8 has a comfortably sized garage. The victim in this is the front entrance, which has become a little tight.
We continued to look at the curved north elevation, which becomes much tighter and uniform in Scheme 8.

Scheme 8 seemed to be working, at least on the first and second floors. The kitchen and guest wings had more or less settled down, and the curving north wall seemed to be working as well. At our next client meeting, we spent a long time discussing security and access to the basement, particularly the weapons and shooting range areas. We were not quite there yet, as the shooting range was directly accessible from the guest staircase. In the meantime we continued to move pieces around.

Scheme 9 shows us looking at two areas: How does the building envelope distinguish the guest wing? How does the piece either fit with the rest of the massing, or stand apart? Also, the kitchen, pantry and entry area still proved unsatisfying. We would continue to play with that area.
We are also looking at the size of the kitchen area. It shrinks considerably in Scheme 9.

Scheme 10 is a response to the client meeting where we addressed access and security to the basement areas. While the ground floor does not change significantly, the shooting range ends up completely outside the above-grade building envelope. This is our answer to the weapons and shooting security question. It makes the house bigger, which means we punted on being able to find a clever solution within the area we were given.
We also return to a rectilinear north elevation to the guest suite.

Scheme 10 has a somewhat convoluted basement circulation diagram, but the security and access questions have been resolved.
From the guest stair, one can follow a hallway to the pool/gym.
From the master stair coming from the kitchen, one has direct access to the pool/gym, and access to a hall leading to weapons and shooting. Weapons is therefore behind two lockable doors: one to the pool/gym, and one between pool/gym and weapons.
A major design element shows up in the master suite: the hot tub turret.

We were not satisfied with the shooting range outside the ground floor envelope. The range requires a lot of excavation and foundation work, with no usable space to benefit. We also received structural framing feedback that suggested framing the garage roof with beams as shown in dashed red. However, the architecture was not aligning with the structure. After some sketching, we saw a way to solve the shooting range and structural framing issues. Moving the guest stair to the north of the garage would do the trick.

Our Scheme 14B adds some more tweaks. We moved some of the plumbing elements around to provide a larger guest bathroom, and decided to give up the powder room.

Here is Scheme 14B.
All the program elements are in place. Adjacencies and circulation seem to be working. A straightforward structural diagram appears to be working in concert with the architecture. Lastly, the strength of the initial “concrete planes” diagram has returned to the design.
This is starting to feel satisfying.

After 14 documented iterations and dozens of sketches with a Sharpie, the essential diagram of the design has stayed intact. Pieces have moved; pieces have been added; some pieces have been removed. The insight of the first successful sketch diagram took one or two days to arrive. The entire schematic design process unfolded over two months, including several client meetings.

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Principal at Sealander Architects, Ellsworth Maine. Revit guru. Married with 3 children. Avid gardener. Lived in San Francisco for nine years. Master in Architecture from Columbia University Bachelor of arts in religious studies, Wesleyan University. Graduated Staples High School, Westport CT. Hope to spend some time in Hokkaido before all is said and done.