Monday, March 19, 2012


Now and then, people ask me to critique designs for homes or additions they’ve drawn themselves. Many of these plans are both thoughtful and inventive, but even the best of them tend to suffer from one recurring flaw: Too many features crammed into too little space. 

This is a problem endemic to creative types: They’re bursting with ideas, and they’re hell-bent on including every single one of them. For example, the design for a living room might be loaded down with level changes, multiple finishes, jutting cabinets, complicated ceiling vaults, and busy window arrangements. While any one of these features might work beautifully taken alone, using all of them is more likely to yield a busy, cramped, and amateurish design. 

Smart designers rein in this natural tendency to complicate things using a sophisticated formula. It’s called KISS--for Keep It Simple, Stupid. People who subscribe to KISS know that good design has less to do with putting stuff in than with throwing stuff out.

KISS says that a few rooms with more generous dimensions are better than any number of cramped and inadequate ones. Now, since World War II, Americans have been led to equate more rooms with more prestige, so it’s no surprise that even in these days of lowered expectations, amateur designers are always trying to shoehorn too many rooms into too little space. They think that more rooms will make their houses seem bigger and more impressive. In fact, the opposite happens:  All those barely-adequate cubicles with fancy names--media room, breakfast room, walk-in pantry, or whatever--only impinge on the meat-and-potatoes spaces that are used every day.  

Within individual rooms, KISS also posits that a few generously-sized features will serve better than a whole slew of busy ones. For many lay designers, this isn’t welcome advice either, because it usually means that a number of their pet ideas will be politely asked to croak off. Maybe it’s that swanky island they’re determined to shoehorn into the kitchen, or those double lavatories they’ve cruelly wedged into a mere scrap of bathroom counter. They might even have to ax a whole bedroom to yield decent dimensions throughout the rest of the house.Ouch. 

But the value of KISS doesn’t end there. It’s also a good rule for designing elevations (the way the house looks from the street). Here, it says that a few strong elements usually give better results than a cornucopia of competing ones. In a small house, for example, one each of an eye-catching window, gable, or chimney per elevation are about the limit--more will just junk up the place. But even on a larger house, where there’s room for multiple grouped elements such as windows or dormers, one of them should always be clearly dominant.  

KISS is a hard enough rule for architects to follow--as many modern buildings will attest--but for homeowners, it can be downright agonizing. It’s not easy giving the axe to all those cool details you’ve clipped from magazines over the years. But hang tough:  you’re far better off choosing a few of your favorites and leaving the rest for another day.  

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