New Avenue recently had the opportunity to sit and chat about Accessory Dwelling Units with one of our most talented partner architects. “This building type is a bit of a passion of mine,” he told us, “having once lived in a wonderful one-room houseboat for 18 years and worked in a small but historic one-room ice house that I owned for 10 years—a place that housed a staff of seven people! Small can be beautiful. It can also be cramped and depressing. How you design it is what makes the difference.”
Since founding his own firm 30 years ago, the architect and his staff have designed a wide range of accessory dwelling units and small houses in many architectural styles. He brought out the plans of a few of his favorites and told us their stories, summarized below for your enjoyment. He used these projects to illustrate his philosophy on how to build small, wonderfully. (Items marked with an * are the most important).
Elements of Great Design
Mix of Volumes
- Don’t chop the place up into a bunch of small, separate rooms. Instead, create small, cozy nooks that open out to a large, expansive space having a high ceiling, thereby getting the best of both worlds.*
- Provide high ceilings where one generally stands, a lower ceiling where one often sits, and the lowest ceilings where one sleeps, such as in a loft.
- To create clarity and order, align circulation patterns and lines of sight along straight and well-defined axes.
- Make the house feel bigger by orienting these axis lines along the full length of the building, so one can look from one end of the building to the other. If it looks longer, it feels bigger!*
- Extend axis lines straight out through the building and towards something visually appealing off in the distance.
- Always place windows or artwork at the end of the direction one walks – sort of a “light at the end of the tunnel.” After all, short, bright tunnels are better than long, dark caves.
- In the tallest areas, emphasize the vertical lines with a chimney or a tall window, for example. Doing so leads one’s eye upward and makes the space feel even taller.
Well-Defined Spaces with Distinct Uses
- Make sure every space has a well defined use and every use has a well defined space. This way, one moves from space to space rather than being in just one room.*
- Make sure each space has its own special character or personality whereby one space feels distinctly different from another space. This way, one’s experience changes as one occupies different spaces.
Open the Indoors to the Outdoors
- Connect primary indoor living spaces to primary outdoor living spaces, where the indoors flow out onto terraces and decks.
- Link the indoor and outdoor spaces with tall, wide doorways and movable walls. In this way, you borrow the outdoor space to make the indoor space feel larger.
- Drop window sills to the floor. Make window heads taller than standard.
Efficiency and Order
- Keep the circulation central so there is no wasted space. Who wants to commute?
- Circulate through spaces, never hallways. Hallways are often cramped and boring.
- Use every inch!
- Provide a lot of built-ins. Limit freestanding furniture to the large, key pieces.
- Provide a place for everything – think like you’re on a boat, where things are always stowed.
- Avoid clutter. You do this by providing lots of ample, accessible and well-lit storage space.* Think the smaller the space, the more important good storage is.
Capture Vistas and Daylight
- Place windows and doorways where they focus on the best views, which draws one’s eye outward.
- Bring in daylight from all directions, even from above. Dark spaces contract and feel closed in. Well-lit spaces expand and feel more open.
- Avoid fussy. Don’t use too many materials.
- Keep the lines and forms simple. Stick to clear geometric shapes.
- Let the architecture be the backdrop for the details, furnishings and art.
- Limit the details. Provide some well-crafted details that are special and delightful. Locate them in places where they become the focus and, therefore, count.
- Plan for the multi-use of spaces.
Colorado Carriage House
At the base of the Rocky Mountains east of Boulder, Colorado, in the historic coal-mining town of Superior, a wealthy homeowner wanted to create a guest house to serve as the focal point of his expansive rear garden. To honor the site’s beauty and traditional setting, the owner suggested a carriage house. So, together, the owner and the architect explored the back alleys of the oldest neighborhoods in Boulder, where they found numerous original carriage houses where horses and buggies were once kept. These were tall, square structures constructed of stone, with tall access doors and hay lofts — small but wonderful buildings that provided the inspiration for the new guest house.
The dominant form of the architect’s “carriage house” is a 20-foot square stone building with a steep hipped roof springing from 11-foot-high walls up to a 19-foot-high peak, supporting two gabled dormers and capped with a center cupola. To avoid a living space the size and shape of a two-car garage, The architect expanded the floor area to 752 square feet by adding two one-story wings on opposing ends, thereby stretching the interior space to a length of almost 40 feet. So these wings would feel subordinate to the main structure, they were given the appearance of trellises later enclosed with windows. One wing is the entry, kitchen, and dining space; the other is the master bedroom. Doorways between spaces are tall, wide, and aligned. A stairway leads up to a sleeping loft that extends out over the living-room sofa in order to provide a lower ceiling where one often sits. The sofa is positioned to look out to the expansive garden and the distant mountains beyond. The bedroom closet is custom built to resemble furniture so the room feels bigger. The living room and master bedroom open out to a stone terrace, which is raised up a few steps so it overlooks the beautiful garden. At the opening party, more than one guest told the architect it would be a joy to live in this “carriage house” year round!
Small but Grand
315 square feet is small, but can it be grand? You bet. Consider this new craftsman-style cottage located in Mill Valley, California, that was designed by the architect’s firm for use as a guest house. The architect kept this one simple and affordable. It’s really just one room, but with a high, peaked ceiling and a sizable bathroom. There’s a place for everything. There’s a deck in a square bay window overlooking the garden. A daybed for sleeping is framed by bookcases and centered under a large window, which looks out under a trellis of white climbing roses. The kitchen is tucked into a corner, adjacent to a dining table pulled up to a built-in banquet. During winter nights, one can sit in a rocking chair next to the warm wood-burning stove with its chimney stretching up to the high roof ridge above. This is a guest house where most anyone would be happy to stay.
Cabin in the Woods
At a site high up on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, the architect’s client asked for a guest house nestled in a grove of tall redwood trees down below the main house. On a mountain, in the woods, what is more appropriate than a log cabin? This one-bedroom, 617-square-foot cabin, however, comes with a twist. They say, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” In this case, to fit among the trees, the architect’s team cut the rectangular building in half, opening it like a book on one side and glazing the resulting gap on the downhill side with floor-to-eave windows where the dining table is placed. The living room, of course, orients towards the mountain. The master bedroom looks the other way, towards an open meadow. A large sleeping loft for kids, accessed via a custom-built ladder, captures light and ceiling height with two opposing shed-shaped dormers. In this cabin, a small family, an au pair, or one’s in-laws could live happily.
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