Page H1 . 21 May 2003                     
ArchitectureWeek - Patterns of Home
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    Patterns of Home
    Pattern Five Parts in Proportion : Cluster of Forms

    ArchWeek Photo

    From the largest volumes down to the smallest elements, Jeffrey Limerick's house has good proportions. The chunky building blocks are varied in size and orientation but are similar in shape.
    Photo: David Duncan Livingston


    Jeffrey Limerick's house in Boulder, Colorado, steps back from the street and presents a well-orchestrated assembly of building blocks, roof forms, and textures in the dignified manner of many traditional Boulder homes.

    The house is an example of informal, asymmetric balance and proportion. The two main front masses of the house remain in balance because they each have a center a large, high window centered under a symmetrical portion of roof. They share similar materials, colors, and textures. They share one roof surface and are, therefore, actually part of a larger entity.

    This balance can be better understood from a side view of the house, which shows overall form as an assembly of similar gable-roofed volumes, intersecting at right angles, stepping down from the tallest to the lowest front window bay on the street.

    Good proportions on the outside grow directly out of the plan. Each of the rooms, both inside and out, has a fat rectangular shape. The rooms are then organized to form two larger halves, each shifted relative to each other to form the entry in the front and the deck in the back. The resulting plan, and the resulting volume of the house, is composed of the same bulky rectangular proportions. This unity of shape is a hallmark of good proportion.

    ArchWeek Photo

    The chunky proportions of the main-floor rooms are extended upward into the vertical dimension to produce the similarly chunky and compact exteriors.
    Image: Taunton Press

    ArchWeek Photo

    Good balance and proportion don't require symmetry. The house achieves its harmony through repeated use of similarly shaped forms assembled into a roughly balanced whole.
    Photo: David Duncan Livingston

    ArchWeek Photo

    Rooms don't need to be crisp rectangles. They can be irregular with straight or rounded wall sections, but generally they should be compact, oblong, and not too skinny.
    Image: Taunton Press

    Click on thumbnail images to view full-size pictures.

    The Potato-Shaped Room

    Using roughly similar shapes for the rooms gives unity to a house plan. But what is the shape of a well-proportioned room? We tell our students (and remind ourselves!) that rooms should be shaped more like a potato than a carrot relatively compact and oblong not long and skinny. Generally, a room should be a little longer than wide, but not by much. This shape is flexible, naturally holding a single social gathering as well as two smaller ones. When we begin a design, we sketch rooms as fuzzy tuber-shaped blobs.

    Andrea Palladio, the great 16th-century Italian architect, specified precise room proportions derived from the musical harmonies produced by specific lengths of vibrating strings or pipes full of oscillating air.

    But he also admitted that these ideal proportions could be modified as needed to fit the rooms into their places in the building. In effect, he advised that a room never be narrower than half its length and that the height never be less than the width. This produces rooms that are compact and chubby in volume much like a potato.

    Patterns of Home

    Discuss this article in our Home Design Forum...



    Part of the ArchitectureWeek Patterns series. Text and images excerpted with permission from Patterns of Home: The Ten Essentials of Enduring Design by Max Jacobson, Murray Silverstein, and Barbara Winslow, copyright © 2002 The Taunton Press, Inc. The book is available from The Taunton Press and at

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