It’s Not Hip to be Square: The Shapes of Architectural Design

House plans

Most houses look and feel a little similar. The majority are boxes with pitched roofs, with smaller boxes inside them used as different rooms (think of the way children sketch houses, as chimney-clad squares with triangular roofs and square windows). Over the years, several architects have torn away from this tradition, either as a way of solving a unique siting problem or simply to produce a house with character. This has led to a number of alternatives to the standard house shape, such as shotgun houses, A-frame houses, geodesic domes, and courtyard houses. Here, we’ll explore the shapes of architectural design.

Though they may initially appear similar to the more traditional suburban house, shotgun houses are a unique solution to long and narrow plots of land. Originating in the Southern United States, these houses consist of three to five rooms joined by a long hallway that acts like a spine. Because they are intended for dense habitation, it is common that only the front and back walls have large windows, while the majority of the rooms themselves have skylights or narrow windows high up on the walls. They are generally approached from the living room, to the kitchen, and then the multiple bedrooms.

A-frame homes are shaped like oversized pitched roofs, and their interior walls are either angled outward or are simply perpendicular to the ground to provide suitable picture-hanging space. They have origins in rural European towns, but they became a very popular alternative housing solution in America following World War II. Because they are generally smaller and more inexpensive than traditional homes, they are popular as vacation or secondary homes. For this reason, they are available in prefabricated kits that can be sent by truck to an empty site.

Geodesic domes are triangulated half-spheres that provide very compact habitation. They were championed by Buckminster Fuller as a prefabricated, mass housing solution to the lack of materials shortly after World War II, and many of the originals still exist today. Like A-frames, they are generally built as secondary houses, as well as greenhouses, storage spaces, and guest homes.

The ability to construct a courtyard within the perimeter of a house is a luxury with many apparent benefits, because while a house might appear typical from the outside, a courtyard is a welcome surprise for any guest. Steven Holl produced a body of research around these benefits in Alphabetical City, in which he looked closely at the benefits gained from the many available shapes a courtyard can take. A courtyard works best with a single-story home because it affords a lot of natural light, though they can be found in multi-story homes as well. Fleetwood Fernandez’s Taslimi House hides a marble-lined courtyard within its larger wooden frame. Though it is compact, it brings abundant light to the interior rooms adjacent to it.

Some houses are shaped to specifically accommodate the daily routine of their owners. Some are split in two, with one wing set up for activities of the day (living room, kitchen) and the other for the night (bedrooms, etc.), resulting in an unusually shaped home. Some architects have taken this concept further, such as UNStudio’s Mobius House. A diagram reveals that the house wraps around itself to be occupied one room at a time in a sequence, from the moment its owners wake up until they go back to bed. This is a great method of formation and organization that can come from a series of conversations between clients and architects working toward building a house that will be enjoyed for a lifetime.

It’s Not Hip to be Square: The Shapes of Architectural Design was last modified: June 16th, 2017 by Shane Reiner-Roth
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