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Best Practices

Why the Floor Plan Matters

With savvy programming, double-duty details can be used to minimize excess square footage and our design choices can be weighed against environmental impacts

So now that you’ve been indoctrinated into the practice of launching a project by setting environmental-impact goals, including foreswearing fossil fuels, what happens next? For many, maybe even most of us, the natural next step is to start envisioning the space: How is your house, renovation, addition, or ADU going to be laid out? How will you move from room to room? What uses do you envision for the spaces in your abode?

This is a critical part of designing a new home or remodel and has as much to do with the climate impact of the project as many other detail will. Homes that are not thoughtfully planned often end up larger than necessary, with wasted or unused spaces, and are likely to be remodeled sooner, and remodeling is a wasteful process. This critical part of the process is what architects call “programming.”

No, it’s not programming like JavaScript; it’s the process of enumerating all the functions that the building is supposed to accommodate, and what needs are associated with those various functions. Programming typically includes adjacencies—the master bedroom should be next to or have an en-suite bathroom; the kitchen should be located next to the dining room, etc.—and floor area requirements. Does the dining room need to fit Virginia’s great-grandmother’s ginormous ebony sideboard from The Old Country? Does the family room need to fit both Liam’s grand piano and Wolfgang’s pool table? What about Dinah’s old vinyl collection?

About ten years ago I learned something startling from my clients. They had assumed that all the square footage numbers in their architect’s program were additive, so the program dictated how big a house they should build. RED ALERT! First of all, floor area numbers used in programming are pretty…

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11 Comments

  1. Malcolm Taylor | | #1

    Another blog in this series full of great advice.

  2. William Hullsiek | | #2

    Good article! I am designing a new house for retirement, I.e downsizing to one level. Planning ahead is important. I like the time stacking concept where the role of the space changes when the space is being used. Illustrates the importance of acoustic insulation.

  3. CarsonB | | #3

    I have been contemplating bookshelf builtins as part of a railing, but have the same concern about them as horizontal railings and just looking like a fun ladder to them. Should I be worried a 2 year old would try to climb it and fall off the balcony? At least vertical railings provide more of a challenge.

    1. Frank Crawford | | #4

      yes you should be worried about a toddler climbing the " ladder" you made for them. Also if the bookshelf is installed when the building code inspector is there they "may" fail you as each shelf is a step and now you don't pass the minimum railing height requirement.

      1. Malcolm Taylor | | #5

        I didn't think your codes included a restriction on climbable horizontal railings. Ours just removed that provision. Their commentary on why is interesting:

        "9.8.8.6. Design of Guards to Not Facilitate Climbing
        The existing requirements for the design of guards to not facilitate climbing (i.e. limiting footholds) have been relaxed and now only apply to guards protecting a level more than 4.2 metres above the adjacent level. This change is based on industry research that shows climbability of guards has not created the safety issues previously expected."

  4. Mark Walter | | #6

    Well, here I go again.....
    I own my 1963 home and an identical one next door. I can economize quite a lot on design fees by applying concepts to both properties. How do I find a "green-conscious architect" as Ann suggests? On several occasions I have contacted contributing architects to FHB/GBA with disappointing results. I kinda figure that there are probably special interest subgroups among architectural and builder societies. When I have contacted several of these contributors my first response was "duh, I dunno" and the others were simply no response at all.
    So, any suggestions from you readers about how (other than cold calls) I can identify architects and builders who focus heavily upon green design, zero net energy, solar, etc.. I live near Harrisburg PA.

    1. User avater
      Ann Edminster | | #11

      Mark, you might check the USGBC website to see if you can find any USGBC-member residential architects in your area. I'm betting you'll find a few. Good luck!

  5. Chris Strom | | #7

    I appreciate the thought and reflection that went into your project, but I am disappointed to see the plan. You walk in the front door, fall into the living room, circulate right through the middle, and then navigate a very narrow dark hallway where bedrooms are aligned like horse stalls. GBA should elevate it's selection of design examples or stick to technical considerations. Admittedly I don't know the client/budget constraints that caused this result (stuff happens), but this article sets forth the plan as the main event. Is it really something we should emulate?

    1. User avater
      Michael Maines | | #8

      Chris, the top image was not referenced in the article. I agree that it's not an ideal floor plan, but based on its shape I'm sure there were limiting factors. All of the points brought up in the article are relevant for those of us trying to reduce our environmental impact through good design. Perhaps you could share one of your projects as an example of environmentally responsible design through an efficient floor plan.

    2. User avater GBA Editor
      Brian Pontolilo | | #9

      Hi Chris.

      This is on me, not the authors. I choose a floor plan from a Fine Homebuilding article to be a simple icon for Peter and Ann's post. In my haste, I chose a plan that without the context of the article, might seem lacking. If you are interested, you can learn more about that plan and house here: Best Energy Smart Home 2019: DIY Passive House.

      1. Brad Mallory | | #10

        Gracious of you both to apologize but I see no need.
        This is exactly the kind of simple, sensible shelter this forum advocates.
        The traffic flow from the front door to the hallway effectively zones the living, dining and kitchen areas and makes for easy, intuitive furniture placement. The hallway may or may not be dark but it provides excellent separation for the sleeping areas from the great room. I reckon circulation space in this house at 8 or 9 percent- quite good.
        As the Fine Homebuilding article pointed out it was designed for ease of construction.
        There’s a lot to like about this house.

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