Thursday, February 25, 2016

Designing the House

    Having designed and built his own house, my son had the skills and the architect’s software to design mine. I love his house with its large, open room upstairs, but I prefer small, cozy spaces. I was a little worried about Ela's ability to adjust to my aesthetic.
    “Think English cottage, not Italian villa,” I cautioned him.
     I pored over the Not So Big House books my sister gave me, gleaning ideas: put your money into artistic details, not big spaces; define spaces by activity, not by room category; use color or visual differences to demarcate spaces. I showered Ela with these ideas, but I think they were superfluous. He knew all that, anyway.
     I made lists and lists: the ideal kitchen, the sewing room I've always wanted, needs for the space as a whole, ideas from houses I had seen or read about. I gave Ela the lists, then let him do what he wanted. I said, “I want it to be architecturally interesting,” and left the details up to him.
     Ela worked and reworked the plans, rigorously eliminating all unusable spaces, like hallways, and making use of generally unregarded spaces, like putting the washer and drier under the stairs. He sent me his designs as they progressed.  
The downstairs space with wrap-around deck on the south and west sides

    “I’m worried the kitchen will be too dark,” I said, but he said he thought I didn’t realize how small the house was. He assured me that the south-facing windows on the other side of the room would provide plenty of light.
    “I’m worried there isn’t enough counter space in the kitchen,” I said, and he said I could always put in a movable island.
     Together we decided that the planned balcony off the upstairs bedroom was unnecessary and that the front porch steps should be parallel to the house. Because Ela wanted to design the house for passive solar heat, I took careful note of the position of the winter sun. Ela's mathematical calculations showed there wasn't enough sun for that to work, so he adjusted his plans.
    I showed the design to my friend who would build the house. His business partner had doubts. The staircase would dominate, he said. And wouldn’t it be better to open the upstairs bedroom to the downstairs space, like a loft? He drew up alternative plans. I liked his plans, too, so I built two cardboard models, one from Chris’s design and one from Ela’s.
    Instantly I knew that I liked Ela’s design better. Instantly I knew that I would love living in that house.
My cardboard model of Ela's design, south and west sides, without the wrap-around deck or bathroom extension.
    When I made a trip to Georgia to visit my siblings, I brought print-outs of the plans with me. My brother, who was also building a new house, brought his plans, too. I proudly passed around my notebook-size sheets of paper with Ela’s computer-generated drawings of my new house with its small footprint. Everyone thought it was lovely. Then Lee unrolled his plans, large pages of blueprints that took up the whole surface of the table. The house was 4000 square feet and had four bedrooms and a grand entrance and a kitchen the size of my whole downstairs. I felt slightly diminished, but I wasn’t worried. I knew I had a treasure in the making.

    My builder was impressed with Ela’s design. “There isn’t an inch of wasted space in the house,” he said. The measurements were so tightly worked out that Chris was worried about the height of the ceiling over the staircase. “A six-foot man in a hat would hit his head there,” he said. Ela said, no, he was sure he wouldn’t; he was sure he had allowed enough head space. He had worked it out on the computer.
    The design included cupboards under the stairs and several closets. (My old house had no storage space.) There would be a guest room, with a door that closes, for the privacy of my guests. (They had none in my other house.) There would be a bathroom with a door. (There wasn’t even a bathroom in my other house, or a door on the outhouse.) At the top of the stairs, I would turn left into my bedroom and right into my library (a room just for books!). I would have a writing nook from which I could look onto Humpy Mountain as I write. The house looked open and spacious. It fit into the landscape like a grove of trees. It felt just-right big. It felt like me.
     It was the best gift my son had ever given me.