The Timeless Way of Building, Christopher Alexander et al.
A Pattern Language

As avid blog readers know, we recently bought a house. It is, even in the most buyer-friendly of markets, a difficult prospect, a sort of three-dimensional chess where the features one might desire in a new house must be weighed against the available housing stock, the time of year, and one's realtor's interest in assisting in the process. There are things to be said about all of it, since it is largely unpleasant and, worse, uncertain until very near the closing date.

When we first started looking at houses, I did not know what I was looking at or for. I knew, approximately, what we had told the realtor--more bedrooms, bigger kitchen, approximate price range--but these described a lot of places. The first day we looked, we saw five houses--including the one we ended up buying several weeks later--and I returned at the end of it without any real sense of how to evaluate them. While there were a few things I liked, there were various levels of problem with each of them, and that list of desirables did not tell me much at all about which of them to prefer.

Enter The Timeless Way of Building. One of its central ideas is that spaces fit people in rather predictable ways, but only once you know something about what the people who use that space will do. At one point, the author suggests as an exercise that the reader make a list of the routines they engage in frequently--once a day or more than once a day--with the expectation that this list, should it be written fully, consists in many fewer items than one might suspect. It will cost no vanity to give my list:

Drink coffee/wake up spot
Place to write
Walking around to think
Walking dog, short
Walking dog, medium
Walking dog, long
Get ready
Cooking for the family
Cooking for myself
Watch sports/movies/tv
Read, indoors
Read, outdoors
Listen to music
Play music
Sunlight spot
Avoiding sunlight (vitally important in the south in the summer)
Change location to break up work
Quiet and alone
Place to only sit by window

This, as it turned out, served as an excellent guide to differentiating houses. Asking whether I could envision a place for each of these actually did sort out favorites from others, and gave me a vocabulary to talk about why I preferred the houses I did. The technique also worked in reverse: identifying spaces in a house whose uses could not be easily identified was also a way of weeding out properties that were not going to work; "bonus room" is a euphemism for a room that does not integrate into the rest of the house and is only there because of architectural laziness or needing to hit a certain square footage. Of course, we could have found uses for those spaces, but there's no real point in making due if one doesn't have to.

None of this is useful if the house itself is no good. But ours has proven pleasantly surprising so far: built in 1995, which means "constructed with modern materials and techniques" but not "built as close to a rectangle as possible with basic prefab elements," which came to dominate the area's market no later than 1998. It's also a very rare example of a house that is situated oddly on its lot in order to take advantage of--and actually use--its surroundings.

The wall that contains the very large windows is the side that is always in shade--lots of light, very little heat. Those windows have low sills, but the siting of the house means the sills at least 10' off the ground outside. In other words, there's plenty of visibility for the surrounding area from the house but almost none into the house.

The sunny side has fewer windows. Alexander et al say that the correct pattern for building should put as much as possible on the sunny side and leave less essential items--garage, storage--for the shade. This would be madness in the south; the part that receives constant light has less lawn and more space that wouldn't be actively used (the previous owners, unwisely, appear to have planted a number of flowering bushes on this side). But the windows that do exist are set around the corner of the house that gets light in the morning, so the effect is maximized while keeping out the worst of the light.

The house has a screened-in porch that is not connected directly to the house--i.e. 'wrong'--but in the spot that receives shade throughout the day, which makes it useable in all but the warmest of conditions. The porch itself is angled to receive sunlight in the morning and afternoon but--trickiest of all--continually also have some spot that is in the shade.

Most importantly, every room has a few unexpected angles or dimensions--the office is on the second floor, but sunk down two steps--that give just the slightest bit of variation or visual interest.

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