Designing the Dream:  Focus on floor plans, Part I

This is the third installment of a series on home design for our region. Designing for the site, sustainability and low maintenance are priorities for me in this series. This is not about new or experimental features in home design, because although fascinating, they can require a lot of time and attention. Instead, I am looking for tried-and-true materials and designs that will require little maintenance while taking advantage of natural local benefits like abundant sunshine, low humidity and lots of air movement to heat and cool.

Now that you’ve got your house sited (see last month’s Designing the Dream at, let’s talk about floor plans. A good floor plan can make your house a tool for your life that can expedite traffic, effortlessly provide fresh air and inspiring views, incubate creativity, grow your wealth, and keep you safe and warm. An investment in forethought and planning can make all this possible.

So pull out your scratch paper and your site plan, and let’s start with a list of how you want to use this house. How many residents/bedrooms? How many bathrooms? Where do people gather in your present house? Are you a hermit, or a party-thrower? Have a harp, or a big piece of sculpture, or your grandmother’s extra-long antique breakfront that you need to allow room for? Planning an attached workshop that will have 

 special electrical needs? Need a dance studio?

What are your priorities? Here’s a list to consider. You may have others you want to add.

___ Light 

___ Allergies

___ Energy efficiency 

___ Wheelchair access

___ Low maintenance 

___ Privacy

___ Open space 

___ View

One or two stories? Plan for the future now. Even if you don’t own the house long enough to need wheelchair access yourself, wide doorways and other elder-friendly aspects can improve resale value and widen buyer appeal. A single-floor plan makes for less imposition on others’ view, and the whole house can be available to someone with limited mobility. If, on the other hand, you live among the trees, you’ll probably want a second story to get the best view; also, a two-story building with a smaller footprint allows you to get the most mileage from your foundation and roof. 

A bubble diagram allows you to rough out the rooms in your house without tying you to a pencil, ruler and eraser. By being less precise, you can do multiple versions in a short time, and it will free you up to make lots of changes and modifications. Be sure to indicate the features you put on your site plan: solar south, prevalent wind direction, views, neighbors, etc.

Start your layout with a bubble diagram, or should I say, lots of bubble diagrams. Each bubble represents a room, drawn in rough proportion to the other rooms. Arrange them this way and that. Don’t go to all the trouble of carefully measuring and drawing straight lines. Get loose. Have a glass of wine and make lots of bubble diagrams. When you get one that you like, put it away for a while, maybe overnight, and the next day pull it out and look at it with fresh eyes. Don’t be afraid to change things and try new ideas. Remember to keep all the versions until you’re sure you have the one you want.

Every home has public and private spaces. The public spaces are your face to the world, where you entertain visitors or perhaps see clients if you work from home. The private spaces include bedrooms, laundry and utility rooms, where function may take precedence over presentability. Mixed public/private are dining area and sometimes kitchens, depending on where you like to entertain visitors. 

Where’s the noisiest place in your house (visitors, television, music)? You might want to separate it, acoustically, from the bedrooms. Do you want a separate room for the TV, so that when one person is watching, others don’t have to hear it?

For passive solar gain, you’re going to want windows on the south that can get direct winter sun. That’s also where you would want to put a greenhouse, or a sunroom, or a screened, roofed porch that can be converted to a sunroom in the winter. They will all help to heat your house and provide a balm to the soul during the long winters we have here. Windows to the east, besides giving you a glorious view of the sunrise, will help to warm the house as soon as the sun comes over the mountains. 

The cool north side of the house can be used for pantry, root cellar, laundry, storage, or bedrooms.

Look at foot traffic patterns in your house. For example, the back door may be the most-used point of entry. If you walk through the middle of the kitchen, a collision between you and the cook, either physical or emotional, is bound to happen. Reroute that backdoor foot traffic so that it can go either to the kitchen, or to the private areas, or to the public areas. Don’t go through the middle of the kitchen. Is there a private route between bath & bedroom, so you don’t have to pass through the living room after your shower? Is there a door to the patio out back so you can easily retrieve barbecue supplies from the kitchen? Make passageways through your house as uncluttered as possible, in terms of corners. Your house will feel a lot airier and easier to move through.

Cluster your plumbing wherever possible. This will save on the cost of running copper pipe, and will shorten the amount of time for hot water to reach its destination. It’ll also save water wasted while you wait for the hot. A half bath (or powder room, as my mother used to call it) in the public part of the house can be used by visitors without requiring them to go into the house’s private areas. If you can locate the half bath near the front door, someone working in the yard will not have to troop all the way through the house to use the facilities, tracking mud as they go.

Put your main entry facing south, or close to south, if possible—even a few inches of snow or ice will stay frozen all winter on the north, shaded by the house, whereas on the south the sun will be your ally in keeping the entrance dry and clear.