The Design Process

There are very few words that I actively try not to use. However, ugly is one of them. It’s far too easy to say “I don’t like that house, it’s ugly!” It’s difficult to say “I don’t like that house because…” Much like beauty, ugly is in the eye of the beholder and is extremely subjective. However, there are a few objective things to address when designing your house to curb potential ugliness. Well, actually… they’re border line subjective as well.

ug-ly • [uhg-lee] • ADJECTIVE

1. very unattractive or unpleasant to look at; offensive to the sense of beauty; displeasing in appearance.

2. disagreeable; unpleasant; objectionable.

3. offensive to the sight.

No two clients have the same needs or wants for their house and each house has its own unique set of circumstances that need to be resolved or addressed. However, a few ‘rules’ are omnipresent- materials, massing, scale, and proportion. These are means/methods available to an architect to assist in the development of their designs. Addressing them will go a long way to creating an aesthetically pleasing house. Keep in mind, these ‘rules’ are typically broken and remain successful. However, one must first know the rules in order to bend/break them successfully.

Materials should be limited to three (3) on the exterior of a house. Materials should be appropriate for their use- don’t wrap columns in vinyl siding. Not counting the foundation, no more than two (2) wall materials should be visible on the exterior of a house. This stems from simplicity and ease of construction. Use of more materials creates an aesthetic of fragmentation and no sense of overall design cohesion. This in turn leads to visual distraction. The use of fewer materials allows focus on the composition of the design and is typically an indicator of a confident architect. Employ fewer materials executed to a higher degree of proficiency.

Massing should be simple. No matter the aesthetic of a house, the massing should be composed of simple forms. This will typically translate to building shapes that are efficient and sensible. There should be a hierarchy of massing. Most houses are composed of more than one single mass. The most important, or most public part of a house, should be the most prominent mass of the house. The massing of a house should rapidly and clearly show two things- the main ‘body’ of the house and the location for people (not cars) to enter the house.

Scale refers to how one perceives the size of the house elements or spaces in relation to other elements and spaces. Both building scale and human scale need to be addressed. Building scale is how the size of building elements relate to each other. Human scale is how the building elements and spaces relate to the human body. Two differing scales can be used simultaneously, and an architect can alter ones perception by use of scale. There are no hard-fast rules for scale, but a designer must be aware of both building and human scale in order for a successful design.

Proportion refers to the relationship of one element to another in terms of quantity, size, or number. It’s the comparative relationship of differing parts to the whole. There are various proportion ‘devices’ developed over the years to aid architects and guide them in their designs… the Golden Section, Modular Man, the ‘Ken’…etc. Various proportions can be found throughout nature. It makes sense to design a house in harmony with proportions that naturally occur in the world. Proportion applies to all aspects of the design of a house. Proportion should not be used arbitrarily; simple harmonious proportions should be used throughout the design of a house.

It’s beneficial to know why you don’t like something so you don’t repeat the same thing. The next time you find yourself thinking/saying a house is ugly, rather than say it’s ugly, try and describe what it is you find displeasing about the house. It’s highly likely you can trace it to a lack of understanding of materials, massing, scale, and proportion.


Design On,

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* This post is part of the ArchiTalks series in which a group of ‘blog-ing’ architects select a topic and the group all post on the same day and promote each other’s blogs and read varying takes on the topic. This month’s topic is ‘Ugly.’ To read how other architects interpreted the topic please click the links below:


Lee Calisti, AIA – Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
ugly is ugly

Lora Teagarden – L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Ugly Architecture Details

Jeremiah Russell, AIA – ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
unsuccessful, not ugly: #architalks

Eric T. Faulkner – Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Ugly is in The Details

Michele Grace Hottel – Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)

Brian Paletz – The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Ugly, sloppy, and wrong – oh my!

Eric Wittman – intern[life] (@rico_w)
[ugly] buildings [ugly] people

Jeffrey Pelletier – Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Is My House Ugly? If You Love It, Maybe Not!

Nisha Kandiah – ArchiDragon (@ArchiDragon)
the ugly truth

Jim Mehaffey – Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
A Little Ugly Never Hurt Anyone

Mark Stephens – Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Ugly or not ugly Belgian houses?

Ilaria Marani – Creative Aptitude (@creaptitude)
ArchiTalks #30: Ugly

Larry Lucas – Lucas Sustainable, PLLC (@LarryLucasArch)
Die Hard: 7 Ugly Sins Killing Your Community

Stated over ninety years ago, the quote above still holds true and will most likely always. However- and you know I’ve got nothing but love for you Corbu- my ‘issue’ with the quote is the term ‘style’. There are few stronger words in the English language then the word hate- intense or passionate dislike. I rarely use the word. However, I need to state this… I hate the word ‘‘style’.

Residential architecture and the distinctive ‘styles,’ be it Shingle, Victorian, Craftsman, or Modern, are designed by following a particular set of stylistic rules- massing, elements, materials; each are selected and composed in a particular manner to create a building. These rules produce the type of architecture that makes these ‘style’s so well-loved. However, style’ dictates conforming to conventionality; it’s a representation or composition of set patterns and canon. Is this a bad thing? No. The typical residential ‘‘styles’ make up what most people envision when they imagine a home, and these ‘‘styles’ continue to resonate with the majority of homeowners. ‘Style’ does have its place and there are countless new houses constructed in a particular ‘style’. Reproducing homes that are beautiful constructs and akin to the original ‘style’ can be successful if one adheres to the patterns and rules of the ‘style.’ However, typically these homes lack coherence because the rules of the ‘style’ are not consistently followed.

While ‘style’ does have its place, I’m not overly interested with ‘style’ in architecture. ‘Style’ can be very subjective and plastic in architecture. I choose to not start a design with a set ‘style’ and its inherent dogma. I approach each project by looking to define the inherent design issues- independent of a set ‘style’ to strive for. I consciously attempt to not root my work in a particular ‘style.’ I strive to absorb a client’s beliefs and wishes and respond with an appropriate design. At the commencement of each project, any ‘style’ to strive towards is negated- the resultant design is based upon the inherent design problems, client needs, desires, and context. Starting with a particular ‘style’ as the end goal, limits you to the rules of others from the onset.

I prefer to strive for establishing an aesthetic for the client/ project. The aesthetic arises from arrangement of spaces/ forms, context, materiality, key features, etc. Typical architectural design principles are still adhered to- mass, proportion, scale, etc. However, without the confines of a ‘style’ the process is much more organic and in-tune with the clients personal needs. ‘Style’ is someone else’s and per their rules… aesthetic is yours and per your rules. Strive for your own aesthetic.


Design On,

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* This post is part of the ArchiTalks series in which Bob Borson of Life of an Architect selects a topic and a group of ‘blog-ing’ architects all post on the same day and promote each other’s blogs. This month’s topic is ‘Style’– to read how other architects interpreted the topic please click the links below:

Bob Borson – Life of An Architect (@bobborson)

Lee Calisti, AIA – Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
style…final words

Lora Teagarden – L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
The AREsketches Style

Collier Ward – One More Story (@BuildingContent)
Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Steal

Eric T. Faulkner – Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Name That Stile!

Michele Grace Hottel – Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)

Meghana Joshi – IRA Consultants, LLC (@MeghanaIRA)
Architalks : Style

brady ernst – Soapbox Architect (@bradyernstAIA)
What Style Do You Build In?

Brian Paletz – The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
You do you

Michael LaValley – Evolving Architect (@archivalley)
Defining an Architect’s Style

Jarod Hall – di’velept (@divelept)
What’s Your Style?

Greg Croft – Sage Leaf Group (@croft_gregory)
Architectural Style

Jeffrey Pelletier – Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Should You Pick Your Architect Based on Style or Service?

Samantha R. Markham – The Aspiring Architect (@TheAspiringArch)
5 Styles of an Aspiring Architect

Kyu Young Kim – J&K Architects Atelier (@sokokyu)
Loaded With Style

Nisha Kandiah – ArchiDragon (@ArchiDragon)
Regression or Evolution : Style

Jim Mehaffey – Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
What’s in a Style?

Mark Stephens – Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Architectalks 23 – Style


I’ve been involved with client based single family residential design for over twenty years. I’ve worked on single room additions, five million dollar+ custom houses, and everything in-between. Each house has its own unique set of circumstances that need to be resolved or addressed. No two clients have the same set of circumstances or needs/wants for their house. However, one issue is always prevalent- value. Usually value is associated with a monetary amount, but that’s not always true. Clients talk about wanting to add, increase, and maintain value… but typically they’re not sure what value they’re talking about or how it applies to their house.

So how does one address value in a house? It’s actually pretty simple; value in a house comes down to common sense and avoiding excess frill. Value comes from things that make sense and enhance ones comfort and enjoyment of living in a house. A valuable house should employ as many of the following as possible:

1. Location/ Orientation house should be located within a reasonable proximity to the client’s daily needs. Ideally, the house should be in a mixed-use community that offers various amenities with-in walking distance- the less dependent on a vehicle the better for the environs and one’s health. A house should be orientated to take advantage of the sun, prevailing winds, and site specific features. In addition, the house interior should have a connection to the outdoors, both visually and physically.

2. Sustainable house should take advantage of both passive and active sustainable building practices. There are numerous exterior and interior strategies/ methods that can be employed to reduce a house’s impact on the environment. However, the best thing is to construct only the spaces necessary.

3. Floor Plan should meet your needs and how you live. Do not design for what you are told is needed to re-sell the home or include whatever the latest trend is, i.e. “man cave/ diva den.” You don’t want rooms that you never use- not only will you have to furnish them but you will also have to heat and cool them- those monies are better spent elsewhere. Efficiency can be achieved by the minimization of the plan and simple building volumes.

4. Rooms/ Spaces all rooms and spaces should have ample daylight, sufficient applicable storage, and logically accommodate the intended furniture. Dedicated hallways and circulation spaces should be kept to a minimum. (entries to the house should be ‘spaces’ not just doors)

5. Kitchens + Bathrooms should be well organized, have efficient layouts, and provide ample storage- all of which can be achieved in a compact or moderately sized space.


6. Mudroom minimum should include a washable floor, floor drain, and utility sink with a hose attachment. Ideally each occupant of the house would have their own cubby/locker for storage. The mudroom should be located wherever the family foot traffic passes on a daily basis. (it’s usually not the front door)

7. Garage cars are a reality that is not going away any time soon. However, a garage should not be the dominate element on a house. Ideally the garage should be set-back from the main elevation, or even better, if the site allows, the garage should be located on the side/rear and/or underneath of a house.

8. Roof complicated gables, hips, gambrels, etc. can be very distracting to the overall design of a home- they’re even more difficult to flash, vent, and properly waterproof. A roof should be simple in design and shed water.

9. Materials use low-maintenance long lasting materials.

10. Quality should take precedence over quantity. This applies to the entire house- overall size, rooms/ spaces, finishes, etc. Employ fewer elements executed to a higher degree of proficiency.


The most valuable houses are the ones located in mixed-use walkable communities. Ideally the house is close to the owner’s daily needs. Houses that rely on an efficiency of space and are well designed with simple forms and details. Houses designed to meet the needs of the owners, minimize the life-cycle costs of operating and maintaining the house. A house designed for who you are and how you live – these are characteristics of a valuable house.


Design On,

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* Originally posted September 24, 2013, edited/revised per date above.

As an architect, honing my craft of architecture never truly ends. We architects are constantly striving to become better at our craft. We accomplish this by improving or adding ‘tools’ to our skill sets. I have many tools at my disposal to facilitate design and the ‘creation’ of architecture- i.e. experience, drafting/ modeling software, code books, chipboard, zoning regulations, scales, triangles, reference books, pens, pencils, trace paper, etc. However, by far, my best tool is an eraser. It’s also the most difficult tool to master, if one truly can master it at all. Wait. What? I hear you saying:

“Seriously?… You just hold an eraser and scrub side to side to up to down and repeat… It’s not that hard… Okay, maybe it’s a little tricky if you have to erase ink or simultaneously hold an eraser shield… But, it’s really not that difficult.”

I disagree, it’s extremely difficult. An eraser is a tough tool to master, and one of the best tools available to an architect. In a broader sense, an ‘eraser’ is a tool facilitating the ability to edit.


Design ideas are easy to come by. It doesn’t take much to have, and put a bunch of designs/ ideas down on paper, it’s rather easy. It’s being able to edit those that’s difficult. One can quickly get caught up in applying a bunch of ‘new’ ideas and attempt to include all sorts of things that don’t benefit the project or address the client’s needs. An architect needs to be able to view their project objectively and edit all- or at least most– that doesn’t benefit the project. The ability to edit and distill down to the essence of the design idea(s) is crucial, that is where architecture truly shines. It’s not easy. It’s difficult and takes constant work. However, for every project, and at various stages within each project I apply- or at least attempt to– the following consistently:

1. Edit and simplifyfor my practice editing equates to simplification

2. Walk away when enough is enough- when the design has been edited appropriately


How have I mastered editing my projects? I haven’t. However, I use my ‘eraser’ as a tool to edit every project and I improve the ‘tool’ each time. Editing has become a cognizant part of my design process and has vast benefits. Too often we overcomplicate architecture and forget the simple things and keeping things simple- give editing a try and I guarantee you won’t be dissatisfied. Go ahead, break out your tool box and dig out that eraser… Your clients and architecture will thank you!


Design On,

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* See what I did there… see how I edited this post down to the essentials… keep it simple and design on!




** This post is part of the ArchiTalks series in which Bob Borson of Life of an Architect selects a topic and a group of ‘blog-ing’ architects all post on the same day and promote each other’s blogs. This month’s topic is ‘Tool”… I chose to focus on one particular ‘tool’ that I constantly rely on as an architect. To read how other architects interpreted the topic please click the links below:

Bob Borson – Life of An Architect (@bobborson)

Marica McKeel – Studio MM (@ArchitectMM)
3 Tools to Get Our Clients Engaged and Involved

Jeff Echols – Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols)
The Best Tool In Your Toolbox

Lee Calisti, AIA – Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)

Lora Teagarden – L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
The Tools That Help Make #AREsketches

Jeremiah Russell, AIA – ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
tools #architalks

Jes Stafford – MODwelling (@modarchitect)
One Essential Tool

Eric T. Faulkner – Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Architools – Mind Over Matter

Rosa Sheng – Equity by Design (@EquityxDesign)
10 Power Tools to Kickstart Equitable Practice

Michele Grace Hottel – Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
#ArchiTalks 17 “Tool”

Meghana Joshi – IRA Consultants, LLC (@MeghanaIRA)
Tools of an Architect #Architalks 17

Amy Kalar – ArchiMom (@AmyKalar)
ArchiTalks #17: Three Tools for Change

Brian Paletz – The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Can we talk?

Michael LaValley – Evolving Architect (@archivalley)
Why An Architect’s Voice Is Their Most Important Tool

Eric Wittman – intern[life] (@rico_w)
it’s ok, i have a [pen]

Brinn Miracle – Architangent (@simplybrinn)
Synergy: The Value of Architects

Emily Grandstaff-Rice – Emily Grandstaff-Rice FAIA (@egrfaia)
Tools for Learning

Jarod Hall – di’velept (@divelept)
Something Old and Something New

Anthony Richardson – That Architecture Student (@anth_rich)
Tools I Use in Studio

Greg Croft – Sage Leaf Group (@croft_gregory)

Jeffrey A Pelletier – Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Helpful tools found within an Architecture blog

Aaron Bowman – Product & Process (@PP_Podcast)
Sharpen Your Tools

Kyu Young Kim – Palo Alto Design Studio (@sokokyu)
Super Tool

Jared W. Smith – Architect OWL (@ArchitectOWL)
Construction: An Architect’s Learning Tool