Architect Tor Glendinning on Three Pillars of Good Design
A building can look attractive— perhaps it is intriguingly avant garde, covered in generous detail, or filled with premium materials—but if it is not properly composed, purposeful, and sustainable, then an opportunity for good design has been lost. “I have found that implementing a quality design takes resounding discipline,” says Tor Glendinning of 44 Degrees North Architects in Newcastle. “Just because you can create something that is architecturally arresting or precious, doesn’t always mean you should.” Instead, he focuses on a few guiding principles, noting, “If a building can present itself as unique while being true to function, then I think it has won.” MH+D asked Glendinning to tell us more.
Q. How do you address building composition in design?
A. Light and space go together like notes on a bar of music. Just as a correctly executed chord creates a pleasurable listening experience, the composition of a building, the progression of its spaces, and the balance of light should put the user at ease. Light, and especially natural light, can draw you into a space, accentuate volume, and call attention to important features. In many modern waterfront homes these factors culminate in a particular view wall where an abundance of glazing is key. But this is not the only answer. I live on the midcoast, where there are many historic seaside houses. The designers of these cottages didn’t consider the need for occupants to stay inside and gaze at a view. Rather, the emphasis was on immersing oneself in the elements, and covered porches facilitated this. The interiors of these old houses may feel dimly lit by today’s standards. But something as simple as light emanating from a small paned window or filtering through a screened porch can be very powerful. In many old homes, you can feel strongly connected to the sea without a wall of plate glass to emphasize it.
Q. What about space planning?
A. The user program of a building is its story. The architect’s challenge is to organize the various “chapters” so that the narrative is easily understood and navigated. For me, the introduction starts outside: the way one is greeted, led to the entry, and transitioned inside should be a comfortable and logical buildup to the broader story. By comparison, an undefined entry that leads one directly into, say, the main living space can seem abrupt—like opening a book in the middle and trying to figure out the plot.
Q. What does sustainability fit in?
A. With every project, regardless of size, scope, or budget, we must try to minimize its impact on the environment. We don’t have the luxury anymore of approaching architecture any other way. The good news is, I think eco- consciousness is becoming ubiquitous. If there is an existing building that can be reused or repurposed, then let’s start there. In new construction, the design must begin with optimal solar orientation and then segue into an efficient articulation of spaces, a high-performance building envelope, sustainable materials, and the best applicability of mechanical systems.
Q. Can you provide an example of these components together in your work?
A. I recently completed a substantial renovation of a modest cottage for a retired couple on Rutherford Island in South Bristol. Built in the 1980s, the house is situated on a sloped site leading to the north side of the narrow harbor. Rather than tear down and rebuild, we felt there was enough value in the existing home to justify an adaptive reuse approach. After exposing the structure, we incorporated a high-performance thermal envelope complemented by an air-source geothermal heating and cooling system and heat-pump water heater.
We didn’t have the space or need for a grand entry, so to set up the introduction to the house, a meticulously crafted Douglas fir entry portico with pine detailing was added to greet you. The existing foyer worked well enough; we simply removed some walls to gain more elbow room. From the foyer you enter a vaulted living space finished with an indigenous pine ceiling and maple floors to highlight the cottage aesthetic. A generous amount of light rushes in through large French doors, and transom lights illuminate the tall volume. Through the doors and from the deck off the living space you can take in a beautiful view looking north to McFarland Cove. Flanking additions include an all-glass sunroom to the west and a comfortable owners’ suite to the east. We were able to work with existing infrastructure and exploit the attributes of a special location without doing too much—a win in my book.