Today is one of those rare days here on the coast of Maine where summer bullies the usually refreshing maritime air into the 90’s. The wind has shifted to the southwest. The chickadees are mobbing and the mosquitos swarming. The cat can’t seem to get comfortable beneath his coat. My children head off to camp to whittle, sling arrows, and pond swim. I pass the woodpile and remind myself that I should be cutting and splitting my wood now for the winter which is never far. And keep walking. You know this feeling, or something similar, something familiar. You pause a moment from your busy life to observe and realize - this is summer. Or to think -the screen door slamming shut means warm nights. This is the definition of place for me, the emotional intersection of smells, sounds, temperature, everything surrounding you.
When designing a home one of the critical components in the initial conceptual thought process is always to define place. Determine what it is that makes a place different and unique. Whether it's the forces that shaped the land, the geology, or the climate. What cues can you learn from the local architecture? How do people build and with what materials? Do the buildings sit lightly upon the land or are they rooted in the land? What are the natural site rhythms and weather patterns?
If you’ve lived anywhere for a period of time you probably know these things intuitively - the things that comprise place. They can be very subjective and they should be - that's good. You may not even realize what a local expert you are. Where I live on Mount Desert Island, in Maine there are a myriad of things to that inform my thoughts about place. The rounded glacial till and sharp black spruce tips, the colored grids of stacked lobster traps on lawns in winter, weathered fishing shacks and barnacled piers. This is a damp place, almost everything is covered in moss and lichen - green drapes gray and always the silver sea. Prevailing winds from the water twist and sculpt the pine boughs.
Local buildings are typically clad in one of two materials: cedar shingles or wood clapboards. Wood is abundant and inexpensive. Our native cedar is naturally decay and rot resistant and weathers to a silvery gray without finish or maintenance. The salt air corrodes and sticks to everything and the wind is ever present.
Are you forming an image of what this place is like?
WHY IS PLACE IMPORTANT?
Understanding this is key to design thinking and an important part of what distinguishes a work of architecture from a structure. Linking buildings to their surroundings and place makes them more meaningful and responsive to the forces surrounding them. What's truly wonderful about this is that this thinking is accessible to anyone of any means and any budget. It costs nothing extra to be sensitive to these things, to think like this, to define place and act based on your perceptions. By linking your home to your place in your time you’ve effectively said, “These are things about this place that I think are important and noteworthy.”
For example, shaping your home’s roof in a way that allows light in while protecting against the winter winds and shedding snow does this in a very simple and meaningful way. Working with the local topography, in an around trees and geology does this. Using local materials and a color palette drawn from the local flora imbues your project with deeper meaning. Through these simple gestures, your home can tell the story of the place you’ve chosen to build. What’s more, I would argue that your home will actually function better.
I'll close with an example of a home I designed as one possible way of approaching design with respect to place. The overall design concept for this home was one of integration. Integrate views to the water, views to the forest, integrate sunlight into the deepest rooms and integrate the sloping local topography. I created three shed roof forms, one for the garage and workshop, one for the bedrooms and private spaces (the two story volume) and one for the public living areas. The shed roof forms were drawn from local shingled sheds used for storing fishing gear.
While developing the shapes of the structures and their engagement with the land and each other, there were additional subtleties that informed the overall approach I took with the design concurrently. Probably the one most illustrative of place making was the selection of materials.
Most people, save for architects and builders, have trouble interpreting a floor plan. Lines drawn on paper usually have little corollary to a typical person's experience of a home. This gulf between the real and imagined is because spaces are difficult to represent in two dimensions and floor plans often lack color or indication of real materials. Two houses with the same floor plan can be rendered quite differently by modifying only the materials used. So how can you infuse the meaning of place via material selection?
Typically, I look to the site to conceive of an exterior and interior material palette. I find this substantially reinforces ties to a particular place and it's a simple shortcut you can utilize too. For this project, I started with simple image I had taken of a fallen cedar in a local pond. Note the contrasts I talked about above (here it's grays and browns) and the muted color range. This particular site had a number of oak trees present, which lined the forest floor with leaves - like tiny rust-toned scales.
By simply applying an overlay of this image on the actual building forms I created a set of basic rules for the use of color and material.
1 - Exterior: tough, raw, textured. The bark of the tree.
2 - Interior: warm and inviting. The warm browns + heartwood of the tree. Bark peeled back to expose the warm interior.
3- Accents: smooth, scaly textured. These would link the warm interior with the rough exterior. The fallen oak leaves.
4- Changes in elevation: marked by stone walls extending out into the landscape, linking and mediating steps inside and out.
The tough, bark-like exterior rendered in the textured stained shingles is peeled back and cut away to reveal the warm wood interior. The interior is comprised of two types of wood which again mimics the variety of coloration inside the photo of the log, not one brown, but many (not too many!). Copper shingles are abstracted oak leaves in color and form.
The copper weaves its way throughout the house, but is used in very specific ways, to enclose the more solid parts of the house, on all flat roof volumes and it mediates the intersection of the house and earth (as flashing). The stone walls define changes in site elevation both inside and out and add another contrasting gray to the material palette.
As you become aware of the thought process that led to the design outcome, the meaning behind it should reinforce a sense of this place and the home's connection to that place.
Hopefully this information allows it to transcend any emotional response you have to the images (like or dislike) and the narrative should make it more alive. It certainly does for me and it makes the design process and selection of materials systematized and aligned with the greater design goals of the project.
Even without knowing the backstory, I believe, the building feels innately a part of the site and right at home. More images of this project can be found in my portfolio.