Page B1.2 . 12 April 2006                     
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    Serenity on a Budget


    Making the Most of Materials

    The house Govan designed, with lots of collaboration from the owners, was built within a slim budget, yet it provides everything they wanted. Although the house is deliberately spare, the life lived in it is not Spartan. The owners each have a private space for creative endeavors, and the small second floor is a quiet (and Japanese-feeling) "away room" with tatami mats for yoga and meditation.

    The palette of interior materials is minimal: concrete (sealed but left its natural color) for the main-level floor; drywall (painted white) for all walls, ceilings, and soffits; clear-stained Southern yellow pine for shelving, stairs, and all trim; natural birch plywood for built-ins; standard hollow-core doors; laminate countertops; and basic white appliances. Add shoji screens and tatami mats, and that's about it.

    The way these materials are used, however, is not minimal, because the result is the maximum amount of usable space for the least amount of money. And it's possible to create variations on a theme. For example, the wall shelf in the bathroom is simple and inexpensive to build; it's just pine boards and a few lag bolts and screws. But it's visually in tune with similar shelves in the kitchen and, more subtly, with the pattern of thin wood slats on the shoji screen in the living room.

    Creative Efficiency

    Swinging doors and cabinet doors are eliminated wherever possible in favor of pocket doors and open cabinets. Thickened walls contain shelves. Aligning the pocket doors eliminates the need for hallways, and the open floor plan reduces the number of interior walls.

    Space under the stairs is used for clothing storage on one side and media storage on the other. These shelves make the most of what is often unused space. By lining up with the grid of square rails and spindles, the shelves help accentuate the essential stepped nature of the staircase. The staggered ends of the horizontal rails further the stair-step effect. The rails and spindles continue to become the face frames of the shelves.

    In several places, the walls between adjacent areas are partial walls; elsewhere, freestanding cabinetry doubles as a wall between two spaces. For instance, a cabinet is a divider between the dining area and the entry, but space slips past it on both sides, maintaining an open feel.

    Glass display shelves lit from a recessed ceiling fixture add richness; the shelves connect the cabinet to the wall while allowing the cabinet to be seen as an object in space. If the solid cabinet had continued to the wall, it would seem more like a peninsula than an island, the flow of space would be interrupted, and the visual energy of the glass shelves would be lost.

    Splurging on Specialties

    There are a few items that add cost, particularly the shoji screens and the dropped soffit that helps define discrete spaces in the absence of interior walls. But overall, the basic materials and space-saving tactics keep costs well within the limited budget.

    The spaces within this unassuming house invariably add up to more than the sum of their off-the-shelf parts. The entry area just 4 feet by about 6 feet, 4 inches (1.2 by 1.9 meters) is a wonderful example of a space that is small and inexpensive but also hardworking and beautiful.

    This little entry has a seat with some shoe storage below it, a coat closet, storage cabinets, and two elegant spots for displaying flowers and favorite objects: illuminated glass shelves and a deep, recessed shelf, called a tokonoma in Japan.

    All this, but no expensive materials and no labor-intensive details. The cabinet door pulls are blocks of pine with a curve cut out of them for your hand. Like the rest of the house the materials, the details, and the spaces themselves the door pulls are beautiful in their simplicity.   >>>

    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

    Sarah Susanka is a residential architect and best-selling author who has written a series of books on the virtues of the Not So Big House. Marc Vassallo is an architectural writer and author of the forthcoming book, The Barefoot Home.

    This article is excerpted from Inside the Not So Big House, copyright 2005, available from Taunton Press and at



    ArchWeek Image

    Compact kitchen in a "not-so-big" house by Tina Govan.
    Photo: Ken Gutmaker

    ArchWeek Image

    Open shelves are efficient and inexpensive.
    Photo: Ken Gutmaker

    ArchWeek Image

    Open shelves can be an elegant expression of simplicity.
    Photo: Ken Gutmaker

    ArchWeek Image

    Cabinet as a freestanding object.
    Photo: Ken Gutmaker

    ArchWeek Image

    By contrast, cabinet as a peninsula.
    Photo: Ken Gutmaker

    ArchWeek Image

    An "entry pod," an element that is both solid and void, with storage space concealed behind doors and an open display shelf like a Japanese tokonoma.
    Photo: Ken Gutmaker

    ArchWeek Image

    The dining area is defined on three sides by a dropped soffit. The built-in cabinet provides a further separation between the dining area and entry.
    Photo: Ken Gutmaker

    ArchWeek Image

    Under-stair storage.
    Photo: Ken Gutmaker


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