What makes a room warm and inviting? What gives a house that intangible quality of charm? Why are some outdoor spaces used and others not? How do you build a town center, an office space, a home, a garden where people want to be—where they’re comfortable, productive, and content?
Call it Feng Shui or ambiance or aura; some places just have that good feeling. It’s not a mystery, says this book I’ve been reading late into the night: A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander and colleagues. They’ve studied what makes friendly spaces, from Main Streets to dressing rooms, private terraces to parks. It’s the angle of light, the sense of enclosure, the arrangement of seats, the feeling of openness or shelter, the presence of a view (human and close, or pastoral and distant), the connection to the earth, the degree of privacy or contact with others. Design via psychology—my dream of an eleven-hundred-page tome!
Here’s how it works. Each pattern is like a word in a language that can be combined with other words to form the whole. The patterns are design elements or principles (eg. “Sleeping to the East” or “Trellised Walk”). The book starts with the macro-est patterns (“The Distribution of Towns,” “Agricultural Valleys,” “Neighborhood boundary”) and begins to narrow (“Shopping Street,” “Night life,” “Access to Water,” “Small Public Squares,” “High Places,”). These planning-type patterns are beyond the scope of most individual projects, but the authors’ idea is that people can work, in small ways, toward this vision for thriving communities.
Then comes the juiciest stuff, the patterns that can actually guide the design of your own property: “House for a small family,” “Wings of light,” “Positive outdoor space,” “Half-hidden garden,” “Sheltering roof.” From here on down to the micro-est parts (“Bed Alcove,” “Sunny counter,” “Built-in seats”) it’s the heart of architecture. This kind of architecture, which rejects mass-production and conformity, and calls instead for the human touch.
The final section of the book describes construction methods and finishings (“Windows which open wide,” “Front door bench,” “Raised flowers,” “Warm colors,” “Paving with cracks between the stones”). Some of the building techniques are inspired by distant lands (eg. the hand-textured mud walls of an Indian village) and would seem quirky, at best, in a New England farmhouse. But that’s all part of the 1970’s-Berkeley-California magic of this book. The authors studied buildings all over the world, from all ages. The patterns represent archetypal human comforts: 253 design ideas that can help people feel at home.
So. Choose the patterns that resonate with you most, and use those to create the architectural program for your project. Start with your most macro-scale pattern, and build upon it with the ones that follow. In this way, your plan develops from abstract forms into detailed designs. The book is organized in such a way as to suggest natural relationships between patterns—in other words, which patterns tend to work well together, or actually need each other.
One important thing: this language is most powerful when compressed, like poetry. “Every building, every room, every garden is better, when all the patterns which it needs are compressed as far as it is possible for them to be. The building will be cheaper, and the meanings in it will be denser.” For example, the kitchen in my feature photo combines at least seven patterns: “Sheltering roof,” “Farmhouse kitchen,” “Light on two sides of every room,” “Sequence of sitting spaces,” “Open shelves,” “Low sill,” and “Small panes.” It is in spaces like this one, where several patterns overlap, that the language sings. All those layers of human-friendly design: these are the comfortable, beautiful spaces in which we love to live.
I had the book on the counter at our last architects’ meeting. Andrew pounced. “Oh, this book!” he said, the moment he walked into the kitchen. (Andrew Cogar, that is—house architect.) Now that I’ve read it, I see the language in his designs—and in those of our landscape architect, Thomas Woltz. Not a coincidence that they work so well together. I think their embracing of these ideas is a large part of what makes them both extraordinary.
Look at this bunkhouse by Andrew and colleagues, a sweet example of layering design elements in a small space:
Here are a few of the patterns that have fueled my sketching and dreaming:
SITE REPAIR. If you have a really beautiful patch of land, don’t build on top of it. Leave it intact, and build instead on some other spot, perhaps nearby, that’s in worse condition. This way, you’ll preserve the existing natural treasures of your property and build where work is needed anyway.
On the farm. Instead of building a house in the middle of our glorious hilltop meadow, we’d make that meadow our yard, and build at the edge of it, where the land is overgrown and starts to slope off.
SOUTH FACING OUTDOORS. “People use open space if it is sunny, and do not use it if it isn’t, in all but desert climates.” And “sunny areas won’t be used if there is a deep band of shade up against the house, through which you must pass to get to the sun.” Therefore people just don’t tend to hang out in north-facing back yards. So, on your building site, put buildings to the north and outdoor spaces to the south.
On the farm. Our house site on the hill has northern and western views, but if we place the yard north of the house, it won’t get sun. We’d make and L-shaped house, and site it northeast of the yard/meadow. The yard would have sun, western views over the barns and paddocks, and a slice of that great northern vista.
POSITIVE OUTDOOR SPACE. An outdoor space feels comfortable if it has the shape of a room—that is, a convex space partly bounded by buildings or trellis or trees—an intentional space, not one leftover between things. Give outdoor spaces, even large ones, a feeling of partial enclosure and protection. “Surround each space with wings of buildings, trees, hedges, fences, arcades and trellised walks, until it becomes an entity with a positive quality and does not spill out indefinitely around corners.”
On the farm. That hilltop yard: give it partial enclosure from the house, plus a sitting wall or trellis along the parking court. And down by the barn: I scratched the idea of the round pen jutting into the gentle angle between barn and indoor; even before reading this, my instinct was that the round pen would break up that space in an uncomfortable way. Now I know why.
CASCADE OF ROOFS. The most pleasing and structurally sound building shape is one in which roofs are highest and largest in the middle, then step down at the wings. This pattern works well with COMMON AREAS AT THE HEART. The largest, most public common areas belong at the heart of the building, where the roof should also be highest. Then “you will be able to make all lesser roofs cascade off these larger roofs and form a stable self-buttressing system, which is congruent with the hierarchy of social spaces underneath the roofs.”
On the farm. Sounds like a farmhouse with wings and porches. Our horse barns will have a subtle version of this roof-cascade shape, too.
SHELTERING ROOF. The roof is a “primal” symbol of shelter. Roofs that are visually prominent, with living space inside them, give a sense of protection and comfort; roofs that are tacked-on caps do not. Avoid flat roofs (except for small roof gardens). Use pitched roofs, and bring the eaves down low, especially at entrances. “Build the top story of each wing right into the roof, so that the roof [not only covers] it, but actually surrounds it.” Yes to dormer windows.
On the farm. Did I mention covered porches?
Here’s a Georgia farmhouse renovation by Andrew Cogar and colleagues:
INDOOR SUNLIGHT. “If the right rooms are facing south, a house is bright and sunny and cheerful; if the wrong rooms are facing south, the house is dark and gloomy.” Give the kitchen a southern exposure. Place the breakfast table by an east window. Position a porch so it gets afternoon sun. Make sure your main living areas are full of light. “Very few things have so much effect on the feeling inside a room as the sun shining into it.”
On the farm. Obvs. yes on all this for designing a house from scratch. And our renovation plans for the existing farmhouse involve moving the kitchen to the south side, looking over the lovely south-facing yard.
ENTRANCE ROOM. This might seem obvious, but don’t forget how important it is. “Arriving in a building, or leaving it, you need a room to pass through, both inside the building and outside it.” Place a small sheltering roof over the door, to protect that spot from the weather. Just inside, make a transitional space, with a bench, a place for coats, a place to greet guests and say goodbye. Give the entrance room a view of the doorstep, so you can see who’s there.
On the farm. When we renovate the existing farmhouse, we’ll bring its classic entry-hall-with-stairs back to life, as the main entrance. We’ll move the driveway and parking to help with this. Beside the entry hall, there’s a nice glassed-in part of the porch that seemed to sit unused; it was full of clutter. We’ll make that space a mudroom, with closets and pantry, and it’ll lead into the new south-facing kitchen.
COMMON AREAS AT THE HEART. In a house, workplace or school, locate the common areas in the middle, so they’re equally accessible to everyone, and people naturally pass through on the way to the more private rooms. Every group needs this kind of gathering place, where people can eat, sit and connect with each other. Fireplaces, lots of sunlight, and outdoor rooms make common areas especially inviting. Give large common areas higher ceilings and roofs than the rooms around them.
On the farm. We’d make our kitchen open to a family room, with a fireplace and porch.
FARMHOUSE KITCHEN. The quintessential common area, the farmhouse kitchen is “the heart of family life.” The isolated kitchen is a holdover from the era of servants; even in servant-less households, closed-off kitchens still contain “the hidden supposition that cooking is a chore and that eating is a pleasure.” And the person doing the cooking takes on a servant-esque roll, separated from the family’s living space, and the gathering of guests. On the other hand, the classic farmhouse kitchen is a living space, with a big table for eating and projects, comfortable chairs for lounging, and a fireplace. Give the kitchen plenty of light and counter space. “Make it a bright and comfortable room,” where people want to hang out.
On the farm. Yes, please.
SIX-FOOT BALCONY. “Balconies and porches which are less than six feet deep are hardly ever used.” People need enough space to move around, and sit facing each other. A sense of partial enclosure helps, too, so give the balcony a partial wall, thick columns, wooden slats, or a trellis. If possible, recess the balcony slightly into the building.
On the farm. If our someday master suite gets a balcony, it’ll follow this pattern: a cozy spot to have some sun and fresh air.
CONNECTION TO THE EARTH. Our health and happiness depend on our connection with nature—whether city park or riverfront, mountain hiking trail, or country garden. Even in non-apartment living, the design of a house can block or enhance that connection. “A house feels isolated from the nature around it,” unless there are transitional areas that connect the floors of the house with the ground outside. This means outdoor rooms, brick terraces, gravel paths, stone steps, to “bring the floors outside, into the land.” These areas use “intermediate materials, more natural than the floors inside… and more man-made than earth and clay and grass.”
On the farm. Of course, the perfect place to connect with the land. We’d love an outdoor room or terrace with a pasture view.
This outdoor living space also fulfills the patterns “Sitting wall,” “Paving with cracks between the stones,” “Warm colors,” and “The fire”:
TERRACED SLOPE. “On sloping land, erosion caused by runoff can kill the soil. It also creates uneven distribution of rainwater over the land,” which isn’t ideal for vegetation. Terraces “spread rainwater evenly over the entire landscape,” so “plants can grow everywhere.” Terraces are not just for grand estates. “At both scales—the house lot and the hills—this method of conserving the land and making it healthy is ancient.” And terraces form lovely sites for building, and walls to sit on, and places for fruit trees, vegetables, and flowers. Terraces are inviting in a way that steep hills are not.
On the farm. We’ll terrace the steep slope below the house meadow, and plant gardens.
TREE PLACES. “Trees have a very deep and crucial meaning to human beings. The significance of old trees is archetypal… The trees that people love create special social places: places to be in, and pass through, places you can dream about, and places you can draw. Trees have the potential to create various kinds of social spaces: an umbrella—where a single, low-sprawling tree like an oak defines an outdoor room; a pair—where two trees form a gateway; a grove—where several trees cluster together; a square—where they enclose an open space; and an avenue—where a double row of trees, their crowns touching, line a path or street.” Preserve special trees, and plant new ones in spots where people will gravitate to them and care for them.
On the farm. Adirondack chairs under the willow; by the farmhouse, a terrace below the maple’s giant canopy, with hanging lanterns; a hammock between two hickories overlooking the pasture; a treehouse in the woods; a tree swing with a view.
GARDEN GROWING WILD. Instead of fighting nature to maintain fussy, pristine plantings, choose species that naturally thrive on your land, and allow them to grow slightly wild. In this kind of garden, “the natural processes… will maintain the condition of the garden and not degrade it.” This means less maintenance, and a more natural beauty. “Natural wild plants, for example, are planted among flowers and grass, so that there is no room for so-called weeds to fill the empty spaces… Rocks and stones are placed where there are changes of level… A garden growing wild is healthier, more capable of stable growth, than the more clipped and artificial garden.” It is pleasure to tend and observe this kind of garden. On the other hand, “gardens that have to be tended obsessively, enslave a person to them; you cannot learn from them in quite the same way.”
On the farm. This aesthetic is one of the reasons we fell in love with Thomas Woltz’s work. Our entire farm will reflect this idea, from flower gardens near the house, to grasses and sedges along the waterway, to wild meadow grasses on the hillside.
TRELLISED WALK. “Trellised walks have their own special beauty… They are almost archetypal.” Use them to emphasize a path, form a boundary for POSITIVE OUTDOOR SPACE, create a garden seat with filtered light from climbing plants, hang bird feeders, or make a gateway or entrance transition. A trellised path is one of the most inviting places in a landscape.
On the farm. A small trellised walk could form the border between our hilltop yard and the parking court.
BUILT-IN SEATS. “Everybody loves them. They make a building feel comfortable and luxurious.” But usually built-in seats aren’t really made for sitting. The seats are narrow shelves with thin cushions, the backs aren’t sloped or padded, and often the location isn’t quite right. (It’s true. Search images of window seats and you’ll see these problems, again and again.) “To make a built-in seat that really works… ask yourself where you would place a sofa or comfortable arm chair—and build the seat there, not tucked into some hopeless corner. Make the seat as wide as a really comfortable chair (at least 18 inches), with a back that slopes gently (not upright), and put warm soft cushions on it, so that it is really comfortable. Place the seat so that a person sitting down is looking at something interesting.” Like an outdoor view, or other people in the room.
On the farm. A cozy window seat with filtered sunlight and a view of the horses grazing in the pasture; or a built-in seat in the farmhouse kitchen, where guests can lounge, close enough to chat while I cook.
WINDOWS WHICH OPEN WIDE. To enhance that all-important connection with nature, and to let in breezes, use side-hung casement windows. They’re easy to open and close, and they open wide to the fresh air. “The old time French windows are a stunning example of this pattern. They are narrow, full length upstairs windows, which swing out onto a tiny balcony, large enough only to contain the open windows. When you open them you fill the frame, and can stand drinking in the air: they put you intensely close to the outside—yet in a perfectly urban sense, as much in Paris or Madrid as in the open countryside.” Of course, those upstairs French windows are a rare instance in which a very shallow balcony actually works.
On the farm. As many casement windows as possible, to let in the air, and the smells and sounds of the farm.
SMALL PANES. Uninterrupted plate glass windows don’t make the best living spaces. When we’re indoors, where we take shelter, the illusion that nothing separates us from the outdoors is not actually a comfortable feeling. “It is the nature of windows to give you a relationship to the outside and at the same time to give a sense of enclosure.” And a practical matter: “big areas of clear glass are sometimes even dangerous. People walk into plate glass windows, because they look like air.” Animals walk or fly into them, too. But on windows with small panes, “the frames of the panes definitely tell you that something is there separating you from the outside.” There’s a third reason for this pattern, an aesthetic one: “windows which are broken up make for more interesting views.” Just as cropping a photograph can make it more vivid, windows with small panes frame the view in multiple, visually interesting ways, and give us a sense of the view as alive and multi-layered.
On the farm. The big glass doors and windows on both sides of the party barn are the perfect place for this pattern.
Let’s go back to that feature photo. The kitchen might feel too exposed if its big window were uninterrupted glass. The small panes shelter the space, help to create filtered light, and frame the simple view in more pleasing ways. This window also fulfills the pattern LOW SILL, which says the sills of ground floor windows near sitting spots should be about 13 or 14 inches. This height gives a view of the ground, making our sense of connection to the outdoors feel more whole, while still maintaining the clear difference between windows and doors.
CANVAS ROOFS. “There is a very special beauty about tents and canvas awnings. The canvas has a softness, a suppleness, which is in harmony with wind and light and sun.” Frank Lloyd Wright used canvas roofs on simple structures at Taliesin West, his winter home and school in the desert. He wrote, “The canvas overhead being translucent, there is a very beautiful light to live and work in; I have never experienced anything like it elsewhere except in Japan somewhat, in their houses with sliding paper walls or ‘shoji.'” Alexander and colleagues used retractable canvas roofs on interior patios in Peru. And “in Italy, the canvas awning is used quite commonly over south and west windows. The canvas is often a bright and beautiful orange, giving color to the street and a warm glow to the interior homes.” This pattern can take the form of awnings, tent-like roofs, or half-open walls to shelter outdoor rooms from wind.
On the farm. My mother has a retractable canvas awning over her deck, which overlooks the ocean. It’s one of my favorite places to sit, in the shade and breeze; it does create a softer light than a permanent roof would, and you can pull it back on chilly days when you want sun. We’d put one on our house, on the southwest exposure, with a view over the lawn and down to the barns.