Good design doesn't have to be froufrou. It can be simple and useful in its beauty, making use of natural elements. Often it's a matter of looking to things that are important to you apart from conventional ideas and to what the idea of home means to you and your family.
Poor planning and small budgets can lead to design mistakes, but often flaws become apparent as newer and better ways of home planning and construction come into favor.
We've chosen 10 common design flaws to highlight in this article, listed in no particular order. If you find some of these problems in your home, take heart. You're not alone, and there are ways to resolve the situation. Carpenters and handymen have been around for thousands of years, and many do-it-yourself experts learned about home improvement while coming up with workable solutions for design flaws and getting hooked on the problem solving itself.
Too Much Storage
Walk-in closets may bolster images of success and comfort, but having all of that stuff around can take away from creating a haven in your home. Too little or too much storage clutters lives. If you have too much storage space, you might fill it with more clutter, but if you don't have enough, you may not have room for a growing family.
Mark P. Sexton of Krueck + Sexton Architects in Chicago, Ill., says that he and many design professionals think that the biggest design flaw in the average home is closets [source: Sexton]. "The American walk-in closet is an incredible waste of space. It is the biggest waste of space, but people like it," he says, "I'm all for storage, but it should be flexible. It is more efficient, beautiful and flexible-to-use cabinets, where the walking space is used for circulating rather than segregating closet contents."
As Sexton summarizes, "Great design, you get more with less."
Too Little Circulation
It's not a new phenomenon, but many people in industrialized countries get very little fresh air. We often wake in heated or air-conditioned rooms, commute with car, subway and bus windows sealed tight, and spend days in hyper-sealed work spaces.
Safety and surrounding air quality factor in to whether we open windows and let natural air circulate, and privacy, noise and convenience issues determine whether we open windows in our homes at all. Many older homes have windows painted shut from lack of use, and some newer home windows are nailed down to prevent potential home invasion.
Sealed and shuttered windows create a safe feeling and can prevent drafts in colder climates, but they also pose a safety hazard when the need to escape from fire or other home emergencies arises. Building codes in the United States and elsewhere require exit planning, and older homes need upgrades to meet the minimum codes for safety. Likewise, concealed outer doors and windows -- sometimes considered safer due to being out of sight -- can become ideal spots for crime or illegal entry.
Poorly Lit and Underpowered
When asking one of the most acclaimed architects of the 20th century, Richard Meier, what he thinks is a common design flaw in the average home, he replied, "Too few houses take advantage of natural light" [source: Meier].
A Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study found that "In a typical building, lighting accounts for 25 to 40 percent of energy consumption. In addition to its health and financial benefits, natural light also provides an almost 'perfect white light' that has a number of visual benefits" [source: ScienceDaily].
Buyers and sellers may rave about how many windows a property has, but even natural lighting has problems. Although the warmth from the sunlight streaming through all those windows may be welcome in winter, in summertime the windows may need to be covered to keep temperatures down. You also have to keep all those windows clean. And then there's the matter of privacy. Consider the placement of windows and perform draft and privacy checks at different times of day. Having a neighbor's window too near your bathroom or bedroom windows may be a little too close for comfort if you don't want to be seen or heard in private moments.
Most people don't want to live in a cave, but with some exceptions, they don't want to be overexposed either. If a space is in need of lots of artificial lighting, electric outlets and extension cords, or a large investment in window coverings, the overall design could be a problem.
Poor Choice for Multi-Use
Having an office, sewing, craft, reading or multi-purpose room may seem like a great idea. But if it becomes a dim dumping ground of boxes and bags with a closed door, it's a project in need of completion that likely will inspire dread.
You probably won't use a family game room if your family doesn't play games, and you won't want to spend time in a recreation room that looks like a museum. Keep it real about what works for you and what you already do, instead of what you could see yourself doing in a space.
At the same time, if there's something you really want to do but aren't doing currently, a change of pace may help it happen. But a reality check is still a good idea. A "workout room" filled with boxes still packed from the previous move, for example, may be a good indicator of how you'll use space in a new home, despite your best intentions.
Heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) is ideally a humble, hard-working and barely noticed element of the overall home. Unfortunately, issues of placement, upkeep and installation are common and often costly.
Poor HVAC planning can lead to mold growth from too much moisture, white noise (or downright loud noise) and poor performance from a unit that is the wrong size for heating or cooling the area. If there's a lack of insulation or an inefficient placement of vents, residents can be hot or cold most of the time, which is a huge but preventable flaw. High ceilings, too many windows, too few windows and other design elements can add to heating and cooling costs.
While a gorgeous white-wash stucco dwelling in a Mediterranean climate may seem dreamy, consider the added task of frequently white-washing the walls to remove mold. Lovely joinery in traditional Asian building and wood detailing in Western Victorian architecture provide beauty and character, but they also have an abundance of interesting cracks, drafts and low-tech building issues. Consider your budget and your comfort in all seasons.
In communities without running water, it's just good planning to dig the waste hole some distance from the home and cooking area. Why, then, do some Western homes have bathrooms next to the dining room and the kitchen? The answer is plumbing placement. Having a shared hot-water source between the kitchen and bath, as well as a means to have piping curve downward to eliminate wafting upward fumes, makes for an unusual proximity for eating, and well, eliminating. The bathroom itself can have its own problems, since the places you wash your body are right next to the toilet.
Choosing historic home living often means accepting that your dinner guests may be uncomfortable using your one and only bathroom until after the other guests have cleared from the table outside of the bathroom door.
Placement, arrangement and number of bathrooms are considerations for growing families, and accessibility can also be a factor for aging families. In a split-level home in particular, up- and downstairs mobility is important, as is getting children and parents off to school and work on time each morning.
Disorganized Kitchen Space
Kitchens can be places for gathering and eating or spaces just for putting meals together. How well the kitchen matches the needs of the people using it can make or break a home buying or remodeling decision. Choosing between an efficient, set-off space just for cooking and an open layout for prepping and socializing is a big consideration for many, and making a better kitchen has been an ongoing task of design.
A 1946 U.S. study counted the actual steps housewives used to prepare a meal, finding that an "ideal layout" would lead to a dinner needing only 70 steps and the least efficient would need 454 [source: LIFE Magazine]. Their suggested design put appliances, cabinetry, and drawers on just two walls of the kitchen; this layout may be a forerunner to contemporary kitchens that use islands for additional counter and storage space and for the added eat-in counter, which changed the "L" to a "U" design.
An earlier German kitchen study of sorts, the Frankfurt kitchen (1926), is a model of domestic efficiency due to its very small size and easy to clean materials and layout, but at just 6.2 feet (1.9 meters) by 11.2 feet (3.4 meters) it is mostly a solo space [source: Moonan].
Designers borrowed elements of each of these studies, and the kitchen of today is often a small, windowless space for preparing food or a large, less efficient eat-in space that brings the kitchen and dining rooms into the living areas, along with the un-vented and sometimes lingering aromas of cabbage, curry and garlic.
There is cost in complexity. Woodwork needs shaping, floors need joining, carpets need matching, and windows and doors need custom-fitting. The more complex home designs become, the more there is for people to clean and cover.
After World War II, a new housing type called the ranch developed out of designs by architects and developers such as Cliff May, Alfred Levitt and Frank Lloyd Wright. Lowering costs and combining living spaces led to floor plans with a central living area and rooms coming off of the main room by connecting hallways. When done well, there was an open flow of rooms one into another with windows and doors transitioning to the outside. However, when executed poorly, the interiors of ranch homes were built around lots of rectangles and squares. Ranch housing began as an appealing and modern way to live, but got a bad rap for popularizing long box houses that lack character.
Architectural elements came back into use with copies of more elaborate historic housing touches (like porches and ornate cosmetic decorations), but the rectangle remained as a force to be reckoned with in the majority of Western homes. Leaving the boxy style showed that design mattered to home buyers, as did breaking from a uniform style. Lofts and open plan designs in recent years bring back the rectangle in its more original, or Modernist, form.
Most people have an outfit or piece of clothing that just feels good, and other clothing that is a day-long exercise in tugging, adjusting and self-consciousness. Living in a well-made home versus one that is cheaply built can feel the same.
Cutting corners by spackling a cosmetic layer over low-grade drywall or putting carpet over a too-thin concrete floor leads to surface failures and possibly bigger issues with the stability of the home itself. Taking a look at the areas where rooms come together, such as where the ceiling meets the wall and the walls meet the floor, can be very telling. Cracks, hairline fissures and gaps hint at the quality of the building materials and the stress of the weight-bearing areas on the very seams of the house.
Untreated wood beams and plywood or particleboard shells underneath the siding and drywall can expand and contract, allowing water and ice to damage the structure and pests to attack the wood itself. A qualified inspector often can predict housing upkeep costs just by looking at the home's foundation and supports. Checking the grade of roofing material and its suitability to the climate surrounding the house also is a good predictor of future problems.
A National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) study indicates that 50.2 percent of people in the United States own their homes for at least 10 years, while the number owning them at least 20 years drops to 27.6 percent [source: Emrath]. Many build and buy with the short-term in mind, so choosing a well-built, long-term home can come down to using the right materials from the ground up.
Poor Pre-construction Planning
Among its lists of planning tips, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) encourages home buyers to consider this question: "Is there enough room for both the present and the future?" [source: HUD]. Planning for aging, child-rearing and housing extended family often takes a back seat to individual design preferences.
Bringing the family together or keeping them apart depends on the placement of rooms and the overall accessibility of the house. Whether your budget allows for a small or massive home, envisioning your preference for close-knit quarters or separate spaces gives some control over choosing a layout for the family dynamics in years to come. Asking where people will sleep and how much privacy they'll have, and even how young and old will get from one room to another prevents having to update or even move when needs arise.
Creating a timeline of hopes and possible life changes closes the door on designs that won't age with a family and opens the door to more flawless growth within your home.
For more on home design and related topics, visit the links on the next page.
New York City is chock-full of fake buildings. Check out the infrastructure disguised as normal facades at HowStuffWorks Now.
More Great Links
- Buntrock, Dana. Personal interview. Sept. 15, 2010.
- Emrath, Paul. "How Long Buyers Remain in Their Homes." Housing Economics.com, NAHB Special Studies. Feb. 11, 2009. (Oct. 17, 2011) http://www.nahb.org/generic.aspx?sectionID=734&genericContentID=110770&channelID=311
- LIFE Magazine. "Easier Housekeeping: Scientific Analysis Simplifies a Housewife's Work." Vol. 21, No. 11. p. 100. Sept. 9, 1946. (Oct. 17, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=UEkEAAAAMBAJ
- Lupton, Ellen and Miller, J. Abbott. "The Bathroom, the Kitchen, and the Aesthetics of Waste." Cambridge, Mass. : MIT List Visual Arts Center. 1992.
- Meier, Richard. Personal interview. Sept. 14, 2010.
- Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Collections. The Frankfurt Kitchen. Sept. 16, 2010. (Oct. 18, 2011) http://www.artsmia.org/index.php?section_id=164
- Moonan, Wendy. "A Forward-Looking Kitchen by a Woman of the 20's." The New York Times. July 14, 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/14/arts/design/14anti.html
- Moore, Charles, Allen, Gerald, Lyndon, Donlyn. "The Place of Houses." New York:Henry Holt. 1974.
- Newman, Oscar. "Defensible Space: Crime Prevention through Urban Design." New York:The Macmillan Company. 1972.
- Rybczynski, Witold. "The Ranch House Anomaly: How America Fell in and out of Love with Them." Slate. Apr. 17, 2007. (Oct. 18, 2011) http://www.slate.com/id/2163970/
- ScienceDaily. "Daylight Savings: Building With Natural Light." Nov. 15, 2006. (Oct. 18, 2011) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/11/061114194440.htm
- Sexton, Mark P. Personal interview. Sept. 15, 2010.
- Swenson, Alfred, and Pang, Pao-Chi. "Building Construction." Encyclopedia Britannica. (Oct. 18, 2011) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/83859/building-construction/
- U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), "100 Questions & Answers about Buying a New Home." Sept. 15, 2010. (Oct. 18, 2011) http://www.hud.gov/offices/hsg/sfh/buying/buyhm.cfm