Design Isn’t Just in the Details




This month’s Drawing Board is the final in a series of four installments by architect Jeremiah Eck about the progression of a house in Lovell

Mies van der Rohe, the German-born architect known for his exquisite detailing on such buildings as the Seagram’s building in New York City, was fond of saying “God is in the details.”  I’ve never agreed with the statement completely because I think it sends the message that details are somehow separate from the rest of the project. I prefer the wisdom of the Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen: “The answer to every design problem lies in the next highest order.” It tells us that every design decision in a project, from larger issues like siting through details such as the casework are related, and to find a solution, look to the larger context. For instance, if I want to design a doorknob, I would look at the shape and style of the door, or if I wanted to design the kitchen, I would look at how it fits into the rooms around it. In other words, no part of a distinctive house design stands alone.

In the first three articles of this series, I tried to demonstrate how siting, the building form or massing, and even sustainability are related. In this last article, I’d like to demonstrate how details are connected and complementary to the whole design of a house or, for that matter, any other piece of real architecture.

When designing a house on a sloping site, one of the most difficult challenges is how to visually hide the fact on the downside of the slope because there are often supporting posts there that can be ungainly. On this house in Lovell, we used horizontal slats on the lower level that not only hide the structural posts behind but also emphasize the horizontal character of the house on the site. I point this out because we repeated a similar horizontal detail on the interior in the Living Hall. There we used fir for slats instead of cedar, as we did on the exterior, but the overall look is very similar. The detail makes a wonderful wainscoting that ties the major room of the house together, and we even carried it up the fireplace wall to help emphasize the chimney as an integral part of the room. This is a good example of what I mean by relating or connecting details to the house as a whole. We might have just as easily used the exterior slats and done nothing but a typical painted wall and separately detailed fireplace, but by tying the two together, we’ve created a more complete and consistent house.

Another detail that resulted directly from looking at the next, larger order of design is the roof bracket. To help shelter the entries and porches and to keep water off the exterior walls, we designed deep roof overhangs in a number of locations around the house. Structurally, the roof overhangs are self-supporting and technically don’t need any additional support. But good design is not always about pure necessity; sometimes what seems to be needed is just as important. In effect, the brackets provide a visual support—and delight—that give the house a sheltering quality it wouldn’t have without them. It is another good example of details that flow naturally from the rest of the house design.

Eck | MacNeely Architects:, 617-367-9696

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