Renovating or building a house, more than any other undertaking, pits our dreams against our realities. When we think about dollars we tend to be very practical. Dreams, by their very nature, are often impractical. The reconciliation of the two is never an easy thing–and yet, in renovating a house, it's essential that the two come together. People's dreams are frequently more expensive than the realities of their pocketbook.
Three variables- quality, quantity and cost- govern the decision making process in house design construction.
There are three variables involved in reconciling dreams with realities: quality, quantity and cost. Cost seems like the most obvious of the three: How much are you willing to invest to accomplish your dream? Often, what people think they can afford increases over the course of the project because they don't want to compromise on their dreams. The budget that at first seemed so absolute rises equally.
Quantity also seems like an obvious factor. Some people assume that they need a house of a certain size, because all the houses they've seen and liked are that size. But by rethinking your needs and wishes, you may find a way to reduce quantity and reallocate your money into higher-quality materials or detailing. For others, quantity is important, and the desire to live in a bigger space is what prompted them to consider renovating their house in the first place. If size has nothing to do with your vision, then the quality of space-the materials or character of the house-can be achieved with the reduction of space.
As you think about your own dreams and realities, it's useful to picture quality, quantity and cost as the three points of a triangle. In designing and renovating a house, two of these three variables can remain constant, but the third has to be adjustable. (Most houses are renovated/built with the quantity and cost fixed; the variable that has to give is quality.) Try to gauge where your interests fall on the quality-quantity-cost triangle. Are you the type, who will want more space, even if you have to sacrifice quality of materials and execution to get it? Or are you the astute observers of detail who will want fine finishes and craftsmanship even if the project has to be smaller so you can afford it? Or are you interested in both the quality and the size you have determined and willing and able to let the cost increase to reflect both?
Clients, who want to maintain both quality and quantity, must understand that this decision means higher cost. Allowing cost to be the variable offers the greatest flexibility in terms of design and fulfillment of dreams, but it's the rare client who has this option.
The greatest challenge in renovating/building a house lies in making the best use of the dollars available. Quality design requires a careful evaluation of needs and wishes, based not only on quantities but also, and more important, on qualities of space, light and character. Our reliance today on the quantifiable of life often makes us settle for security over pleasure. Keep in mind that the reason you are renovating/ building your house in the first place is to create a wonderful place to live on a daily basis.
The quality-quantity-cost triangle can help you in your decision making, whether you have a tight budget and champagne tastes or an ample budget and a desire for an efficient, elegant environment. If you keep asking yourself what will enhance every day living as you proceed with the design of your home, you'll ensure that the result makes the best use of the resources available and becomes a place that gives you enjoyment every day.
Simplify, Simplify, Simplify
People are interested in simplifying, and in reallocating their time and personal resources to the things that give them pleasure and their lives a sense of meaning. They are making conscious choices to reduce the number of activities they participate in, in order to reconnect with that part of themselves that might be termed "soul." Just take note of the flood of books about simplification to hit the bookstores over the past few years, such as Simple Abundance, by Sarah Ban Breathnach, Kitchen Table Wisdom, by Rachel Naomi Remen, and Care of the Soul, by Thomas Moore. We crave a return to a more supportable pace and scale. Whether the simplification comes in the form of reduced work hours or taking a few minutes a day for contemplation, people are making choices that allow them to become masters again of their own time.
To be surrounded by an environment that is both beautiful and personally enriching has far more appeal than the futile attempt to "keep up with the Jones's." When we have what the Jones's have, we experience first hand the inadequacy of the dream. There is a deep yearning for something more. The paradox is that that something more resides in less. More quality, less quantity. More beauty, less bravado. More inner abundance, less outer display of wealth. The move toward a simpler way of living, and toward a realignment of our outer lives with our inner beliefs, leads along the same path as renovating/building better design. Though we may not automatically name it as such, this move to do more with less arises from a generosity of spirit: a wish for sufficiency instead of overindulgence.
Building for the Future
We are slowly coming to understand that if we build for our short-term needs alone, with buildings that self-destruct in only a generation or two, there will continue to be no sense of past and no sense of soul. Our perspective is broadening. We are looking into the future and are starting to get a grip with how we can help maintain our planet in the state of balance that we recognize as home.
Good design and fine craftsmanship take time. They take time to learn, time to execute and time to appreciate. But it is time that we seem to have lost in our fast-paced, information-drenched society. The paradox we confront is that our productivity has given us the wealth to acquire whatever we desire materially, but we are finding that material alone is an insufficient vision. The qualities we long for have everything to do with taking time, renovating/building for the long-term, paying attention to who we are, what we care about and how we affect our world. The better-designed house is a home in every sense of the word. It is a place that, by its very nature,asks you to sit there a while and to take in all that it offers.
The pattern is clear-revolutions in housing have traditionally been rejected and replaced by more familiar forms. The way the house of the future will look and feel is based on evolution not revolution. As technology evolves, the house of the future will integrate it into the existing familiar forms. The rate of technological change will continue to increase, but our homes will always be the "still-point," the resting-place and secure haven of balance and comfort. The better designed house offers a way to bring the soul back into our homes, our communities and our society's fabric. The house of the future will be better designed-and an expression of who we are and the way we really live.
So how can we get there from here? How can we change our perceptions of what constitutes a better house and convince our family and friends that we are not crazy for building smaller, more tailored homes that in all likelihood will cost just as much as their larger ones? I believe that the more people put their money where there hearts are, the more others will realize the validity of renovating/ building for comfort and not for prestige.
We should look more closely at ourselves, at how we want to live, at what inspires us and at what our planet needs to return to balance. If we can start reflecting these values in our houses, we will make a small but significant step in helping humanity achieve the extraordinary spirit that all are born with.
Our houses are expressions of ourselves, extensions almost, that you can share with family and friends, knowing that the house enriches not only their lives but all lives that pass through it. When houses have been designed and renovated/built with great care then that care becomes a joyous presence in the home. Such a home is a place of great peace-one in which the residents can hear their own pulse and come to understand what makes them tick. We all want to go home, but we don't know how. This information, I hope, will help us find the way (and a good home renovator).
Sarah Susanka / Architect 1998
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