The Sun and the Site
AIA DESIGN THEORY-May 2010
by Rebecca Falzano
Photography Trent Bell
Robert Knight designs a house that follows the sun
In his book The Perfect House, Witold Rybczynski observes: “Buildings reveal themselves slowly; they must be seen at different times of day and under different conditions, in sunlight and darkness, in fog and rain. Houses particularly should be appreciated in small doses. For days on end you may be unaware of your surroundings, then one day you stop what you are doing, look around, and indescribably but unmistakably you feel that everything, including yourself, is in the right place. That is the experience of architecture.”
Robert Knight of Knight Associates approaches architecture in this way; in his early discussions with clients, he tries to view the house that is imbedded in their memories as “home,” believing that will form the basis of a building that feels right for them. Sometimes those discussions yield a mental image that is the starting point of the house. Then the site influences that mental image and starts to change it—but sometimes the site itself is the starting point, and the images from the clients come later. In the case of one house, Knight designed it to follow the sun.
Q: What direction did the homeowners give you, and how did the mental image form?
A: In the case of this house, except to say that they wanted the house to fit in, the homeowners hadn’t given me much direction beyond practical issues. They wanted to see what I would come up with. So, I sat down in a plastic chair they had left in the field and started putting myself on the site at different times of the day, seeing how I would like to move around, what I would be looking at, what would be next to what, and where I would be as I moved through the day. It was a perfect site for a year-round house. It faced south looking across a quiet and protected cove and had a sweep of view from southeast to southwest. Since there was a field with very few trees, the view was open. The land rises pretty sharply from the beach—so there is a bit of elevation for the view—but then it rises gently through a screen of oaks, then more steeply, creating a wooded hillside that would shelter a house against the north winds. At the edge of the woods there was one oak that was clearly the king of the place, and I sat with my back to it and felt it anchor the house, and even though it wasn’t built yet, I knew that oak would be there.
Q: How did the house’s layout follow?
A: I organized the house around the way the sun would move through it. A downstairs master bedroom at the east end (my clients are early risers), then next and a bit forward a kitchen, then an eating space near it, a little farther west. Then the living room, then a den for the husband (his wife had explained that he needed someplace where he could be less social than she liked to be). Finally, on the far west, I ended with a screened porch, feeling that was how they would use the day, following the sun through the house. Of course there were other functions the house had to fulfill, but that use pattern was the idea of the house. I felt I could easily fill in the other functions once I had a form that worked with this organizational idea.
Q: How did you design the house to fit in with its surrounding landscape?
A: I got an image from a piece of a nearby farmhouse. It was a suggestion of the tone of the house—not quite right for this site and program, but sort of like being able to imagine a garment after you see a beautiful piece of Harris tweed to make it out of. So I had the tone, but this house needed a stronger form that would hold up when seen from a distance out on the water against this backdrop of oaks. I like to use roof shapes to give houses their shape and personality and saw how this house could be organized around the use of gables. In this case, I created one major gable over the living room, and some subordinate ones to either side. Now I could start to see the house itself and liked the way it ran from east to west visually just like the rhythm of the spaces and uses it was housing. It looked to me like it was following the sun, and it had a strong enough presence to quietly “own” this small field when seen from the water. With this in my mind, I set out to see if the other pieces of the program would fit in without straining or diluting this picture, because if it starts to be a strain you will feel the house working against itself—a signal that you better go back to the beginning and retest those first assumptions. In this case, it kept on working and ended up in the house that you see.
American Institute of Architects
Maine AIA: aiamaine.org, 207-885-8888
Knight Associates: knightarchitect.com, 207-374-2845