Pop-Ups for Humans
So there I was, sitting in my home-made booth at Wallingford’s first business expo, Cheers to Wallingford. At last, an interested couple approaches my space! “Ah, so you’re the one responsible for all of those horrid pop-ups!” “P-pop-ups?” I stammered, not quite tracking their criticism. “You know, turning our neighborhood of charming single-story bungalows to monstrous mega-mansions!”
Gosh, I prefer to think of my work as improving the hood, not destroying it. But the couple did raise an interesting issue: existing context is important.
When considering context, one should look to not only the immediate neighbors, but also to the entire neighborhood. Actually, Wallingford has a number of large-sized (3000 sf +) homes built in the 1920’s. And not every historic house is a bungalow. We have a wonderful eclectic mix of farmhouses, Dutch colonials, missions, and Tudors, to name a few. That said, the fundamental difference between the older homes and a modern house is human scale. Human scale is seen in both the massing (overall sculptural form) and in the details of a building. Details often include things that a human being can hold in her hand, such as window trim, brackets, ornament, siding, gutters. Often, new additions ignore human proportion. It’s cheaper and usually easier to build a big box, without bays, dormers, porches, and other interesting projections. Quantity over quality takes precedence when a second story addition simply “pops up” without consideration to the home’s massing and relationship to the street. Yes, there are “pop-ups,” both good and bad. What helps it be a good “pop-up” or new house? The following is a short list of human scale issues that drive me crazy.
Eaves make a difference. There are a number of unfortunate bungalows in the neighborhood that had their eaves removed, usually in the ‘50’s. And the newer homes rarely have sufficient overhang. Why have eaves? First, they protect the house from wind, rain, and sun. The greater the eave, the longer the life of materials below it. Second, a sufficient overhang will cool the home in the summer. In the winter, the home feels cozier if rain is not running down the windows. Third, eaves give the house a good three-dimensional “cap” and give it a sense of being secure, warm, and protected. When your home looks sheltered, you feel sheltered. My next door neighbors carefully restored the eaves to their bungalow, and it makes a huge difference.
Garages do not belong on the front elevation of a house. Rarely do you ever see a garage door facing the street on an older home. When it is necessary to have a front elevation garage, it should be concealed with a design that breaks down a monotonous façade. One way of minimizing the door’s effect is to install textures and materials from the home onto the face of the door. Large, all-consuming doors flatten the front façade, and rarely relate to human scale. Again, it’s a matter of cost. It’s cheaper to drive smack into the front of the house than build a detached garage out back, as was the habit of the early twentieth-century. The net result of front elevation garages is the appearance of cars inhabiting the home, not people.
Windows and doors matter to human scale. Yes, large “picture” windows provide an uninterrupted view. Humans have a need for expansive views, and conversely, they also have a need for refuge. Breaking down the scale of a window into smaller sections will help achieve both requirements. It does not need to be tiny, medieval windows. A pattern of fixed and operable windows provide much needed air circulation and a sense of control for the user. This is a separate issue from creating a large opening that erases the barrier between inside and out. Generally, if you can easily open it, the window or door is probably scaled just right. An oversized, fixed pane of glass facing the street is out of context with the older homes and like the garage door, creates a two-dimensional front.
Good massing is difficult to define. The overall sculptural form of a building either speaks to you or it does not. Most of us live in a neighborhood like Wallingford because we enjoy the proportions of the older homes. So it follows that one should consider similar proportions when building new or adding to their home. This could translate to an addition that steps back from the original house or, perhaps projects forward. The form may call for a window seat or an upstairs deck. It does not feel imperious or cold. Ultimately, the home’s massing should represent a welcoming retreat for its inhabitants
The above are only a few guidelines. Please do not misunderstand: I am not saying that one should simply copy the old. Today’s literal duplicates of “bungalow style” can be insipid and monotonous. One may build a beautiful modernist house for this neighborhood, if the owner’s proportion is given prime consideration. Often the solution is found by a thoughtful integration of the new and the old, while always remembering the very human scale of the home dwellers.