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Topics of importance for people about to build or renovate

Two of John McLean's building simply designs

Two of John McLean's building refined simplicity designs, plus a detailed highlight

Building Simply / Building Refined Simplicity

When I present my design work to potential clients, a number of them comment that they think the most striking projects are those with smooth, unbroken lines and simple, but refined details. This is not surprising.

Surrounded by a world with a jumble of visual stimuli, we react positively when we see a building or a room whose shape we comprehend quickly and easily. When that building or space has few design embellishments that divert our attention away from the entity as a whole, its simplicity can have a strong presence. We perceive an uncomplicated visual order that many people find comforting.

The Visual Impact of Our Possessions

We live in a consumer society, and many of us have purchased a great number of things that we enjoy. Some are important to us because of the recollections they bring of friends and places, others for the pleasure we receive from their artistic merit or quirkiness, and some simply for their practical value. What all these objects have in common, however, is that they take up space and need to be placed somewhere in our home or our workplace.

Among other things, buildings are containers for our possessions. The objects we have compete for visual attention with the rooms within which they are placed. When too many items occupy insufficient space, clutter results, often accompanied by disorder. The pleasure we receive from the architectural attributes of a simple building or room can be lost. Recollect how easy it is to sense the character of the rooms of a house for sale from which the furniture and furnishings have been removed.

When I am asked to develop a simple, inexpensive, and striking design, I alert some clients that they may not enjoy the building or space as much as expected if they do not limit the number of things they plan to place in and around it. I explain that there is simply not enough space for every item if (1) rooms are to feel open, inviting and gracious, and (2) adequate space is to be given to special possessions to allow people to focus on their distinctive qualities without nearby visual distractions. In response, some clients get rid of items no longer needed, others add out-of-sight storage space to keep main living and working areas clear, and some organize their things in a visually integrated fashion with the surrounding architecture.

Building Simply

Let us say that we want to build a small, single room building with a flat roof — a box shape. We can easily construct this small building with wall studs of the same height, floor and roof joists of the same length, stucco on the exterior of walls and drywall on the interior, and a built-up asphalt roof. To get inside our building, we can install an inexpensive sliding glass door. For natural light and ventilation, we can choose simple aluminum frame windows and skylights and locate them in logical spots. Once we provide electrical power to the building, we have a basic, workable structure and, likely, not a very interesting one! (Figure A) Building simply and inexpensively is not a reason to build unimaginatively.

But suppose that we paint the building exterior bright yellow and all the interior surfaces, including the floor, bright white. We insert the windows deep in their wall openings to create pronounced shadow lines, and choose sizes, combinations and locations that allow the sun to enter the interior in striking ways, while permitting only narrowly framed views of the surrounding landscape. Our experience outside and inside the building is now more vivid. The little building engages us a bit (Figure B).

We have built in a straightforward manner, using a simple building shape with no architectural embellishments or special details. To make the building distinctive, we have chosen a warm, bold exterior color that contrasts sharply with the subtle range of cool greens in the landscape and blues in the sky. The white interior provides a neutral backdrop to view both the changing patterns of sunlight striking the walls and floor, and the colors and forms of a few select objects and pieces of furniture we want to place in the room. By locating windows to frame views of parts of the landscape rather than broad vistas, we see and appreciate details that might otherwise be missed, and our curiosity about what is located in the landscape just beyond each framed view is heightened. Our building remains inexpensive, but with some poetic thinking, we have made it special.

Building Refined Simplicity

Depending on an owner’s aesthetic preferences and standards, a refined level of visual simplicity may be desired. To achieve this, more architectural forethought and construction care is required, but the building result can be quietly elegant.

Refined simplicity is usually attained by (1) eliminating visually awkward intersections of floor, wall, and ceiling planes that detract from the geometric clarity of the overall building or room shape, (2) using understated details where different materials meet, (3) hiding (or refining the design of) the connectors that tie building components together, and (4) manipulating the path of natural and artificial light to dramatize certain wall and ceiling contours, intersections and textures, often concealing the location of the light source.

Building refined simplicity is more expensive than building simply. For example, at a doorway opening where a drywall surface meets a wood doorjamb, when building simply, one need only cover the gap between the rough edge of each material with a third component (a piece of molding) to give the doorway a finished appearance (Figure C). However, the molding breaks the continuity of the smooth wall surface, and focuses more of one’s attention on the door opening and away from the wall and what may be on it or in front of it.

A more subtle design alternative — one that helps to emphasize the wall as an abstract plane that shapes a room and provides a better background to view the furniture and furnishings in it — is to provide a small space (a reveal) between the edge of the drywall and that of the doorjamb. Only a shadow line then separates the two materials, and the doorjamb is more visually integrated with the wall (Figure D). To build this detail, the drywall and the wood door jamb must be installed and finished so that the surfaces of the two materials remain in line and the gap between them remains a constant size. The construction is more challenging for the builder, but the built detail is striking in its precision and understatement.

Visual simplicity in our home and work environments, whether achieved by building simply or building in a more refined manner, is refreshing. The impact of simple forms and spaces bathed in light reminds us of what is at the core of a work of architecture, no matter how small the project or how pragmatic our initial reasons to build it.

“The sun does not realize how wonderful it is until after a room is made.” — Louis Kahn

John McLean, Architect
San Francisco
(415) 777-9767