Plans, Drafting & Design

Design Philosophy

Small Houses & the Great Outdoors

Design PhilosophyJamie PurnellComment
Porches can be an extension of a house, be sure to give your outdoor space some careful planning and inviting design elements.

Porches can be an extension of a house, be sure to give your outdoor space some careful planning and inviting design elements.

Think Outside...

...the box. That's a hackneyed phrase to be sure. But in this case it makes sense. Homes are, at their very basic level just boxes or containers for our things and to keep us sheltered from the elements. Many of us want our homes to do more than the basics though, and reflect our personalities, styles, or provide a space to pursue and take care of the things we value most. Having worked on designing small, functional spaces that meet code (not always easy, especially where stairs are involved!) and also satisfy an aesthetic, bringing the outdoors in has been a sturdy ally. Not only that, gardening and the outdoors represent a great love of ours that has only grown through the years, so it's no surprise at all that we should want to look out as much as possible. If you are in the midst of designing a small space (especially, but any space can experience this) you have probably noticed that rooms can feel too narrow, or even when able to accommodate furnishings etc. that are needed, can still seem too small to do so. If you're having that issue, try incorporating windows. Even in very small homes, having an open corridor that looks through the house can lend a strong sense of spaciousness, inviting the eye to go long without interruption - and if in the looking through a window, you can carry on your distance even further, so much the better. 

The Beekeeper's Bungalow was a roughly 760 square foot home with two bedrooms and a turning staircase in the middle. The first floor had a bedroom on it as well, so you can imagine that there wasn't a huge amount of space leftover for the living room. One of the ways that we made the living room space feel more effective, rather than cramped, was to have big windows facing west - looking over a covered porch and garden to the immediate west and taking in an expansive westward view across a large field across the street from us. Our eyes were almost always directed out these windows as you just never knew what might be going on outside. Consequently, less time was directed to the interior and the entire sense of spaciousness was amplified despite the fact that the square footage was not large. Facing east, we employed another eye guiding technique. At the end of the galley kitchen visible from the living room, we installed a full glass door that opened onto the back deck and overlooked a garden path that wound eventually to the back of the lot where a greenhouse and shed were. Thus, again, the eye was guided ever onwards, despite the fact that the entire footprint of the home was just 18 by 32. 

Let the Outdoors Be a Friend Even While You're Inside

open up your indoor space to the outside with tall windows.jpg

I'm a firm believer that getting outdoors is good for us, even when we're inside and it's just coming in through a window. Obviously, not every view to the wider world is superb, and there may be times when this doesn't work as well because the view is just not soothing. In cases like this, the outdoors can still be borrowed from effectively by locating windows higher on the wall but to the same effect...even some sky or trees or the sight of a lamp post coming inside does a lot for expanding a small space. Another option is to try utilizing mirrors in locations where windows are impractical. I have seen some fantastic tricks of the eye played on small spaces thanks to great mirror placement, effectively doubling space and brightening spaces when combined with natural light or bright paint. In a case like this, you aren't bringing the outdoors in, but you're still capitalizing on the idea of expanding space sensorily while keeping your footprint small. These techniques work in new builds and remodels alike. 

Time to Head Out to the Patio

Pavers are an inexpensive way to expand your living space (Ithaca House, Point Roberts, WA)

Pavers are an inexpensive way to expand your living space (Ithaca House, Point Roberts, WA)

Another great way to make your space larger is to invite the eye to travel to outdoor spaces like patios, decks and porches. Regardless of your foundation style, there's a solution in that mix. Even condos and apartments are made more spacious with decks and balconies, especially as the outdoor space itself is typically paired with a large glass door leading there. I find some of the most satisfying times of year those when I can stop looking outside and fully incorporate it into the home by throwing open the windows (Shawn would interject that here in the Pacific Northwest that only happens about 3 times a year...but that's a different discussion). Anyway, don't forget to consider your outdoor hardscape as part of your strategy for keeping a small space feeling larger. It works! Pergolas are outdoor structures that can still attach to the home (or be freestanding) and they too employ stretching visual and functional space in a way that encourages a sense of spaciousness. One can extend the sense of a living room, kitchen, etc. by including pergolas or pergola like structures in garden/hardscape design.

Next time you are designing and encounter a tricky small space, try emphasizing view corridors and extending into the outdoors via window mirror, deck, patio or pergola placement. Look at your site and figure out how you might include these patio or porch spaces that literally open up the indoors to the outside. Even cool climates benefit from this outdoor living space part of the year! Just the exercise of seeing where your eyes travel in your home is useful for practicing the effect and learning it, and once you're in the habit of looking in this way, you'll see the trick employed everywhere you turn. I think it is especially functional when dealing with small spaces, and who doesn't like to feel like a magician sometimes? 

Outward Looking is Forward Looking: The Importance of the Window

Design PhilosophyJamie PurnellComment
windows with a simple snowy view.jpg

Windows Are The Eyes of a Home...

The View is Everywhere we Look! Photo Credit: Harper Collins Publishers   

The View is Everywhere we Look! Photo Credit: Harper Collins Publishers


The word window has an etymology that expresses looking, as you might imagine...roots include "wind-eye," "eye-hole" and "eye-door." That shouldn't surprise anyone, but we can overlook the importance of windows in our designs, treating them merely as holes in the walls or code satisfiers rather than corridors that work both ways, allowing light inside and allowing us to keep our surroundings in mind. Perhaps it's a logical outcome of our technology based life that we are forgetting to look through our window screens in favor of all the other screens vying for our attention. Don't fall prey to this focus on the interior only when you are designing your home!

In rural landscapes, it goes without saying that bringing the view in is desirable. For those wanting to keep their footprints compact, window placement lends a hand when trying to design a small but elegant and functional space since windows allow expansiveness without increasing square footage.  Many rural homes are designed exclusively with the view in mind, so in some senses, this article is more about less obviously "natural" locations. 

The View is Wherever We Are

Urban and suburban view isn't just about coveted mountain, lake or other "classic" views. While a suburban or urban location might not have quite as much abundant nature around - the view is everywhere, and we shouldn't underestimate this. All properties are view properties. There's plenty to be seen up close and at a distance just by noticing. Many specimen trees are planted in cities and neighborhoods, shops often put out planters or fill window boxes with seasonal colors, little parks are tucked into the tiniest of spots and the sky is always up there somewhere, even in the slot canyons of downtowns. Even a little easement can host some color. Whoever hasn't yet read one of the studies showing our positive and measurable responses to natural surroundings will find them fascinating and abundant.  Try paying attention to your mental landscape next time you spend time in any natural place - park, tree lined street, deep woods or some other place of non built beauty. It takes only a few minutes with some deep breaths and attention for me to feel worry retreat as I walk along a woodland path. With this psychological need and benefit in mind, rural, suburban and urban areas alike are working hard on preserving wetland and green spaces as part of smarter development incorporating ecological awareness. Planning that focuses on conservation and building more efficiently in terms of density is doing something to ensure that beautiful surroundings can still find a place in our ever increasing sprawl. This intentionality in design is something we can take on as well - it's not just for municipal planners. 

All this is a long way of saying that when designing, developers and individuals alike benefit themselves and their surroundings by looking around outside the building site before going to the drawing board or finalizing plans. Remember the value of the outward looking home - windows are for us and help us. Rather than only consulting catalogs emphasizing interiors, remember to walk your site - if you've got time on your hands, luxuriate in being able to assess seasonal changes that you might want to see from inside, maybe even plan your landscaping in advance. Letting our site get a word in edgewise is one of the most important aspects of design; perhaps it is vital to restructuring communities as a whole so that our homes can take care of our surroundings as well as us. Good consideration of the landscape can help us orient ourselves to the wider world and will hopefully favor more sustainable growth. The size of the human population is certain to increase while the world cannot become larger. Every cottage, home, development and new suburb can be a statement - and our eyes, our senses, and our window placement can have a role in making it a good one.  

Designing for Aging in Place: A Multi Part Blog Series

Design Philosophy, aging in placeJamie PurnellComment

Aging in Place for All Ages

There is an old Chinese adage that states, "Build the well before you are thirsty." It seems highly applicable to design and building. 

In the next few blog entries I'll be exploring the concept and some design ideas relating to aging in place. I guess that's partly because I'm ready and looking forward to staying put for a while. We're not young and we're not old either. What we are is getting ready to embark on our final homebuilding project (at least for a long long while) so it's on my mind. We want to build the right way for our needs, so that we can stay in our home for a long long time, incorporating needed and wished for spaces along with care and thought that will make the home comfortable for us potentially until we reach a great age. Here are some of the topics I'll explore, frequently using my own experiences as examples.  I hope that despite including my own experience as a reference point you'll easily be able to substitute yourself and your own inclinations along the way. If you want more or find a particular area of interest, check back in to future entries for a more fully fleshed out exploration. In the meantime, just kick back and ask yourself, "If I go to the trouble and expense of designing my dream home, what features would I include to make it a home I can enjoy for many decades to come?"

Long Term Affordability

Can your home be designed so that it also "pays for itself?"  For our next build, we want to incorporate some sort of structure in the design that will allow us to rent a fully separate part of our home out if we so choose. This will help with taxes, have the potential to generate income, and will provide space for visitors. Having an easy to care for unit that provides a little income potential will help us stay in our home, even if taxes continue to increase and we choose to retire someday, or if we weren't able to work any longer in our chosen field.  Not only that, if we ever needed medical care from someone skilled, they could even have a place to stay (we live in a geographically complicated location).

Designing for changes in physical capacities. 

Small Barrier Free Shower.jpg

Barrier Free Shower

Though not large, the 840 square foot Itacha Modern house we built offers a European style bathroom wet room with a curbless walk-in shower!

It's now easy to design classy and sleek kitchens and baths that are also fully accessible (this is also sometimes referred to as barrier free design). Check out the slick bathroom styles you can choose from at - all barrier free if you choose to make them so.  When we designed our last build, Ithaca Modern, which we finished earlier this year, we included a European style wet-room that has a curbless shower. Not only is it barrier free - it's easy to clean!

Kitchens, when you are designing your own home, are well worth doing some thinking about, and when you start from scratch, you get to make the rules. It's worth considering how to include options for an unknown future along with the appliances you've always dreamt of. They can mesh, I'm convinced.

Right sizing your house design. 

Health and mobility issues aside, what features should you include to make the house viable for your long term needs? This part of design is huge for aging in place without regrets! For us, it means spending enough time on the issue of right sizing. I'll use some of our concerns as examples. The bigger it is, the more maintenance costs involved both in time and money. Plus, we're minimalists by nature and don't want a huge house full of stuff. However, building too small could also land us on Rue Street (French 101 pun, sorry) - wishing we'd made enough space for things we really value and need. For example, we live in the usually wet and not too warm (but otherwise fairly wonderful) Pacific Northwest. For a couple of activity lovers, this leaves us valuing a space to work out indoors enough to include it in our design. 

Reaching a compromise with concerns. 

Again using ourselves as an example: Our building lot precludes building a one story house both dimensionally and in having a lovely view made even better with a second story. We don't anticipate losing our mobility - and take steps to maintain health. While we want to hedge our bets in designing for the long term, we can't hedge them all. We're okay with this, and with potentially needing to do some retrofitting down the road. I guess my point is, this isn't disaster planning - or at least, not strictly so. Nothing in thoughtful preparation has to preclude designing to your preconceived desires. Include what you want and at the same time spend a little time considering how it would feel to have to leave your home. Maybe there are some things you can include to make that a much less likely possibility, even if something rotten and unexpected happens to you.

The nitty gritty aspects of ADA specifications.

A ramp might be a less common need for aging in place but keeping entries wide and accessible without a lot of stairs could be useful. This is from an ADA approved plan we designed for some clients in our home town.

It's a little daunting to read the requirements that commercial buildings need to adhere to to meet these standards - check it out here if you don't believe me. You don't have to meet every one of these standards for your own build, but it's useful to know things like minimum width for making a full turn in a wheelchair in a kitchen or bathroom, for example, or having some information about accessible hallway and door widths or window and counter top heights that assist in barrier free living. A little information can assist and even foster design tremendously.

So what's next?

There is an old Chinese adage that states, "Build the well before you are thirsty." It seems highly applicable to design and building. Building a home that will accommodate you and your needs for the long term is great planning from a financial point of view at any age. You could just as easily employ this thinking when considering expanding your family as you could when downsizing at retirement age for example. This kind of thinking is one of the base layers of the Aging in Place approach to building. 

Imagine if your home allowed you to experience a major health setback, whether it were a temporary loss of mobility or something long term like a stroke or complications from an illness, and not have to spend days or weeks in a hospital or rehabilitation setting. How about the potentiality for assisted living from the privacy of your own home?  Certainly, an approach like this could save a lot of money in very short order, especially if a group setting doesn't appeal to you. Planning for aging in place can be as simple as including a first floor bedroom or as involved as planning for a fully barrier free home. You can be in any decade of your life and benefit from incorporating just a little of the thinking behind building for aging in place. Here are some common things to consider:

  • How many bedrooms will you need? 
  • Do you plan on having kids?
  • Is there a passion in your life that could likely become a home based business? 

As a quick thought exercise, Do you think at this point in time you could design a home that will last you all the way through your end? I'm not sure I could, but it's worth considering. 

I hope you'll stay tuned and enjoy some of my upcoming blog entries. If you have comments or suggestions, experiences or things especially on your priority list, I hope you'll share by sending me an email or leaving a comment below.