AIA DESIGN THEORY-August 2011
Edited by Rebecca Falzano
Photography Trent Bell
For architect Rob Whitten, the site is the starting point
Architect Rob Whitten prefers to call houses homes. “A home is unique; a place like no other,” he says. For Whitten and his team at Whitten Architects in Portland, a unique home starts with a unique site. “A well-designed and well considered home can complement the natural landscape and be an attribute to its site. A well-designed home should fit its site and context.” And—when all is said and done—Whitten believes it should look like it’s always been there.
Q: WHAT IS YOUR VERY FIRST INTERACTION WITH THE SITE BEFORE THE DESIGN STARTS?
A: We begin by walking the property with the owners on a sunny day. They’ll tell us about their families and what has attracted them to this property. As we walk, we’re evaluating the site’s relationship to the sun, the wind, the views, and the surrounding neighborhood context. Are there neighbors and privacy issues? How will the surrounding properties be developed in the future? We look at the landforms, the natural features, and the existing trees, vegetation, and drainage patterns. The first step in the design of a site-specific home is to preserve and enhance the natural features that brought the owners to the property. We take pictures from many angles, and later we prepare panoramas that show the progression of features and attributes as we move through the site and landscape. Google Earth affords views from 30,000 feet, showing the geographic features, the land forms, and the man-made additions to the landscape—plus the latitude, longitude, and the truenorth solar orientation of the property. We visit the Maine Department of Environmental Protection website to see if there are wetlands issues, flooding issues, or information that may indicate vernal pools. Then we go to the town assessor’s maps and zoning plans to see the political boundaries, setbacks, and restrictions that may affect the use of the site. If necessary, we ask the owners to engage a surveyor to provide a detailed survey with contours and topographic information for the home’s site and landscape.
Q: WITH A WORKING KNOWLEDGE OF THE SITE AND THE OWNER’S PROGRAM OF SPATIAL NEEDS, HOW DO YOU DETERMINE HOW THE HOME WILL RELATE TO THE PROPERTY?
A: We start thinking about things like: How will the interior living spaces relate to the exterior living spaces? Can we use outbuildings, porches, or the shape of the home to create protected entries and protected outside living spaces? How does the home present itself as you approach by car, foot, or boat? How does the sequence of interior spaces relate to the arrival: Do the owners want to see arriving family members from the kitchen? Do they want guests to go to the front door? Then there’s lifestyle: Are the owners early risers? Do they want their bedroom on the eastern side? How does the master suite relate to their adult children returning with grandchildren? Will the guests stay for a weekend? A week? The whole summer? In a comfortable and sustainably designed home the living spaces should relate to the sun and the prevailing breezes. On a choice site you arrive from the north and move south toward the views, the sun, and the summer breezes. Let’s start the day in the kitchen breakfast space on the east side, then live in the great room during the day on the south side, and end the day on the screened porch on west side with the sunset. Let’s locate a stair to provide a natural stack effect, cooling for the summer months, and use the garage to protect the home from cold winter winds.
Q: CAN YOU GIVE EXAMPLES OF HOMES THAT YOU DESIGNED TO WORK WITH THE LANDFORMS, SUN, PREVAILING BREEZES, VIEWS, AND SITE CONSTRAINTS?
A: Diagram 1 shows an undeveloped coastal site with bold ledges, great views, extreme coastal winds, and poor drainage. The home is designed with a long east-west axis to make the most of the sun and large overhangs to protect the windows and doors from the wet weather and is nestled into a pocket in the ledge to protect it from winter storms. The Diagram 2 site had an older cottage that was constructed before Maine’s Shoreland Protection Act or the determination of FEMA coastal flood zones. The new home is pulled back above the FEMA floodplain and set back as far as practicable while maintaining the major trees on the site. The sideyard setbacks of the narrow lot predicated the shape of the home, as did the old terrace that affords spectacular views of the coast. This site orientation then led to the layout of the interior spaces.