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Designing Minds 6: The Overkill Syndrome

Every once in a while, you see a movie so bad, so lacking in characterization, so lame of plot, so corny in resolution, that you wonder if the filmakers set out to make a remarkably crappy film, or was it just that they took a good idea and ran it through the overkill machine?

Oddly enough, when you do run across such a flop, it tends to stick in your mind far longer than a merely mediocre movie.

Some years ago I wandered into a house under construction--a rather expensive home built on a downslope lot. Of the hundreds of houses I've been in since then, this one has remained with me, rather like a truly bad kung fu movie or teeth-grindingly sappy romantic comedy.

What was odd about the design was that it was cobbled together of elements that are generally considered, at least conceptually, to be "good ideas":

1. Large south-facing windows

2. Spacious entry

3. multiple levels on the main floor

4. An open plan with a minimum of structural posts

The design's problem was two-fold: first, these ""neato'' features did not hang together in a planned whole, and second, each was taken to an extreme that stretched the concept to the breaking point.

The front doors opened onto a huge entryway, perched above an immense two-and-a-half story high living room, facing a wall of glass to the south. One spindly little wood post wrapped in drywall rose from the center of the vast space to the beams holding up the roof. A series of steps led from the entry past the twinkie center post down to the main living room level; below this, via an awkward series of steps, lay a sunken corner of the living room, at the very bottom of the natural grade.

But each of the elements was so exaggerated, and so poorly integrated with the site and the functional aspects of the design, that my first and lasting impression was one of an overwhelming sense of waste--of the site, of the materials, and of the interior space.

Southside windows? Well, let's put in lots of them--there's even a view! Hey, let's make the whole wall a window! Yes, let's create a solar oven! And to make sure all that heat gets trapped, let's make sure all the top windows are fixed glass!

Despite the baking heat generated by all that glass, there is something rather cold and stark about a wall of windows--Philip Johnson's famous glass-box house notwithstanding.

Furthermore, with the giant entryway perched right in front of the wall of glass, there was no suspense or charm in entering the living room. One of the common mistakes in subdivision homes is to scrimp on the entryway--either make it too narrow for the house, or wall off a little box in front of the front door, or not fashion one at all.

In this house, the entry was overkill. The designer was reaching for grandeur, but all he grasped was thin air--a big, wasted space of expensive tile.

Then there was all the steps, broken up into multiple landings and a ""sunken living room'' with a nasty little drop on two sides--not enough for a railing, but higher than one step. Perhaps the levels wouldn't bother folks in the prime of life, but what about future occupants with small children, or frail oldsters in the household? What about all that space expended on landings and intermediate levels?

Again, it was an embarrassment of riches. Yes, defining a space via a change in level works wonderfully. But if there's too many changes, all descending to a pit far below....not a pleasing effect.

As for the spindly center post, it seemed completely out of scale. It looked more like a tent pole than an important structural member. If the designer were going to stick with the tent idea, then the rest of the design should have conformed to this vision. But since it didn't, the thin drywalled post just seemed cheesy, cheap and insubstantial.

So what if you're not building a new home? Does any of this apply? Yes. Unity in scale, form and function, and "good ideas" like south-facing windows integrated into the whole--these are as wonderful in any addition or remodel as they are in a new home, as long as they're "done, but not done to death."

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