renovations - habitual patterns of use, by Boulder architects M. Gerwing Architects

We work on a lot of smaller projects that largely entail the internal reorganization of an existing house.  Most often these are houses that were built in the 1960's and the current homeowners are struggling with small, awkward kitchens and houses that are more formally arranged than currently lifestyles are well suited. New houses and restaurants are projects that allow for the most creative freedom, but it is these difficult spatial re-ordering projects that pose the greatest challenges and result in our greatest satisfaction.  Most of these projects are hemmed in with zoning constraints and building restrictions, but the single largest constraint is often in the minds of our clients.  Very often they have lived in the house for a number of years and although they are frustrated with it, it is very difficult for them to conceive of moving a critical function like the kitchen from one space to another.  They have developed habitual patterns of use that make seeing the forest through the trees extraordinarily difficult.

I found this to be true in my own home renovation.  Even as an architect, while living in the house it was difficult to imagine such a radical notion of demolishing and moving a kitchen across the house.  Sitting with the drawings in front of me it was clearly the right move to make, but standing in the house it seemed daunting.  And not just because of the associated cost and complexity that such a move would add to an already trying project, but because I had frankly become so used to getting my coffee and cooking so many meals there.

It is our habit that whenever we are faced with this kind of project we always run through a few exercises that test the possibilities of just these kinds of moves.  What if the dining room flipped positions with the living room?  How about if the entrance was on the other side of the house?  Or, as in a recent project, what if the kitchen moved into the master bedroom?

I make it a practice not to talk about the potential changes to a house when I visit the property for the first time.  For myself, it is the space and distance created while working in the studio that will most likely generate the most interesting solutions to a project, not walking around the house.  It seems a bit counterintuitive, but going to the actual site often makes the possibilities of a project less real, the potential of a project diminishes with the distance to the actual building.

In the end, it is a balanced attack on a project that provides the best answers and brings up the most interesting questions.  As an architect, you have to go to the building and study it, but you also have to go to your studio and take it apart in your head.  Architecture is practiced in the real world of walls and floors and dense materials, but it is best conceived in the imagination with paper and pencil, cardboard and glue.

by Boulder architects M. Gerwing Architects