Scale, proportion and flow aren’t things most prospective custom home clients put at the top of their “must-have” list. But they hold the key to building a home that fits you like a glove.
Cottage or mansion, it doesn’t matter: We as humans know when a place feels inviting, comfy and just right. “People might not always sense why they feel good in a space,” says Brad Butcher, architect and senior project manager of Sidock Group. “They say, ‘ah, great light’ or ‘I love the fireplace over there,’ but don’t have a clear understanding of the forces at work creating that feeling.”
What they are describing, Butcher says, is a series of subtle and complex relationships between scale, proportion and flow that work to create the comforting feel of a well-designed home.
And while those elements may sound a little mathematical or technical, they couldn’t be more human, dictating our physical comfort, the ease with which we live and move in a space, and our primal, emotional reaction to it. Scale, proportion and flow help a skilled architect determine why spaces do or don’t work together, and create custom homes that harmonize perfectly with the people who inhabit them.
Photo by Sidock Group
Size Matters: How Scale Impacts Design
Butcher explains that scale is simply considering what the size of a thing is relative to something else, such as the size of a person or furnishings relative to a room. It’s a simple concept, but one that he sees go awry all the time.
Scale can feel quite intuitive—for example, you don’t want to have a large dining room with a tiny table or a massive island in a tight kitchen. A delicate, diminutive sofa would feel strange and unwelcoming in the middle of a soaring great room with massive beams.
Scale also works with things like the size and shape of doorways, ceiling height, lighting choices and accessories. It would feel off to line the shelves of a majestic built-in with tiny knick-knacks, or install an enormous chandelier in a room with a lower ceiling.
Ultimately, designing rooms that honor the scale of the human form to the space, as well as the furnishings to the space, creates a sense of solidity and fit.
Photo by Sidock Group
It’s All Relative: Proportion
In architecture, proportion is about how the components of the space are relative to each other. Appropriately sized and scaled spaces become more enjoyable because spaces are big where they need to be and modest where they don’t need to be large.
One on-trend example that highlights the challenge of proportion? Shipping-container dwellings. The proportions of these containers-turned-homes are 40x8x8 feet—“not a space you can truly get comfortable in,” Butcher explains. “The appeal of these spaces is the convenience of creating within something that is already assembled, but we don’t design rooms and homes with those dimensions for good reason.”
The reason, he says, is called the Golden Section or Golden Ratio. The Golden Section refers to the shape of a rectangle that is perfectly balanced with length relative to height. “It is—according to science, nature, and mathematics—well proportioned,” Butcher says. “Not too wide, long or narrow. It’s innately visually pleasing and comfortable.” Mathematically, that “golden” ratio would be around 1 to 1.6, not the 5 to 1 length-to-width ratio a shipping container space would have.
Butcher says the shipping container dilemma shows how spaces can be viewed in pretty much two ways: Either squeeze your life into a space, or create a space around your life. Obviously, he advocates the latter.
Photo by Sidock Group
Photo by Sidock Group
Putting it Together: Flow
Flow looks at how spaces relate to each other. Think of the flow between your dining, kitchen and living room. How does it feel?
First, you might consider the size of each room that connects. “You don’t want ‘tiny, tiny, huge,’ when designing adjoining spaces,” says Butcher.
Then, consider access. Butcher often sees issues with flow from indoor to outdoor spaces, where people create too many entryways. For example, having doors leading out to a deck from both a living and kitchen space. “Every time you put a door out to the deck you are disrupting options for wall space in a room that doesn’t really need to have access to the deck,” he says. Those doors create disruption of space on the deck itself, necessitating the moving of furniture and the creation of walkways to get to the door. What about the space needed for a door to swing or slide? And what if you are entering from the outdoors into a carpeted living room, how will that impact your flooring choice and maintenance? All of these are flow questions.
Another example of access challenges he sees are in kitchens, where there may be an entry to a living area, a pantry door, a mudroom door/access to an entry or garage and an entry to a deck or outdoor cooking space. “That’s four openings into a space that really isn’t set up for that,” Butcher says. The result is that the flow of the workspace in the kitchen—arguably the busiest workspace in the house—is totally divided. This results in challenges like interrupted and tiny counter space, gaps between work areas, or the need for extra steps to cross from sink to stove or prep space.
Many of these flow challenges result from the way our lives are changing, such as the decline of formal living rooms, the desire for open kitchens, and more. One of these more unfortunate trends, according to Butcher, is the sunken living room, where there’s a step down from one space to the next. “This not only disrupts flow, but it’s also dangerous,” Butcher says, noting that one step does not create enough distinction between heights for most people to navigate safely. He troubleshoots this flow problem by raising the floor of the sunken room, or, more inexpensively, creating a distinction with different flooring surfaces, such as going from hardwoods to carpet, in order to create visual separation that helps residents better navigate the transition.
Before a client ever agrees to hire Sidock Group, Butcher and his associates have a design guide that they share with potential homeowners to help them put their ideas in order.
“It helps them prioritize the spaces that are most important to them in life, and helps us analyze the level of privacy, separation and functionality in the home.”
For example, they tackle questions such as: Where should the bedrooms be in relation to public space? Another one of the most primary questions they ask is, what is the flow of daily activity in a house? “We try to help people understand the path of life as it relates to design,” Butcher says. For example, when you come home, pull your car in the garage and walk in the door, what is the first thing you want to do? Set your purse down? Do you put keys on a hook, plug in a phone, set groceries down, switch from shoes to slippers? What kind of flow and what kind of elements do those activities require from a space—benches, hooks, cubbies, closets, walkways?
Designing a home that considers the interplay of scale, proportion and flow results in a space that feels cozy, but unconfined. “It’s a feeling that you are both contained and protected, but not limited,” says Butcher, adding that it speaks to a need that is uniquely human, calling to mind our ancestors who wanted to feel safe but have a view of their world. Ultimately, it’s using skilled architecture and design to create undeniable comfort—and a home that feels uniquely yours.