Designing your own home

Posted on 14 July 2007 0 comments

The idea of designing a house is something that appeals to many of us (whether we actually plan to do it or not). We all have our own ideas about what makes a pleasant home and though we may not be able to articulate the precise technical details required for a house construction, we’re likely to have some thoughts about the layout and size of the property.

But where to start? We could simply begin sketching layouts and scribbling down ideas. Or we could take a more studious approach by reading about architecture and housebuilding before we finalise any plans. I think I prefer the more studious approach – if only because I hope it would help me discover new ideas. Of course, many of us will probably combine the two approaches, putting down our ideas on paper but modifying them as our knowledge grows.

There are many books about designing homes and one notable title is A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. The principal author is Christopher Alexander, an Austrian-born architect who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.

The scope of the book – as is clear from the title – is much broader than simply domestic housing. Alexander sets out a series of guidelines or patterns that address some particular aspect of house design or urban planning. The patterns do not sit in isolation but are linked together with related patterns to form a complete design solution. Some people find this approach too prescriptive but it isn’t necessary to take everything that Alexander says as gospel. While I found much to agree with in the book, I also found plenty to disagree with. An example is Pattern 111: Half-hidden garden:

“The proper place for a garden is neither in front, nor fully behind [a house]. The garden needs a certain degree of privacy, yet also wants some kind of tenuous connection to the street and entrance. This balance can only be created in a situation where the garden is half in front, half in back – in a word, at the side, protected by a wall from too great an exposure to the street.”

Archetype of a half-hidden garden

For me, a garden is an escape from the hustle and bustle of the street and city outside. I don’t want it to have any connection with the street, however tenuous. A wall really doesn’t give much sound insulation either. If you’re on a busy street with cars racing past, you don’t want to have to put up with the attendant noise and pollution. Neither do you want to overhear the conversations of people walking past.

Despite my disagreement with some of the patterns in the book, I still recommend A Pattern Language to anyone thinking of designing their own home. The real value in a book like this is that it’s a springboard for your own ideas. It certainly led me to ideas I hadn’t considered. Even when you disagree with a pattern, you find yourself articulating why you prefer an alternative, helping you to clarify your thoughts on the subject. There are a lot of stimulating ideas in the book and I’ll be returning to some of the patterns in future posts.


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