Monday, March 30, 2009

Modern Farmhouse Design

There is no absolute prototype for a farmhouse, but most of us can recognize one when we see it. By definition the originals were located on farms and were integral to the life and work of those farm families who lived there.

Depending on when and where those homes were built, they could be made of stone, brick, shingles or clapboard. Most farmhouses had porches since there was no air conditioning and many farm and family chores were undertaken there. The porch roof provided shelter from the sun and rain yet allowed the cool breezes to flow through and help make those steamy summers tolerable.

The center of family life in the farmhouse was the kitchen. Meals were prepared and often eaten there as well as home pickling and canning for the long winters (in the North). In the older farmhouses, a cooking fireplace was essential. Additional fireplaces were used to heat as many rooms as possible.

I live in an old farmhouse originally built around 1790 and then added onto in the 1800s and more recently added onto by my family. I have come to appreciate the simple detailing the wide board floors and beautiful fireplaces.

When designing a modern farmhouse, porches, wide board floors and beautiful fireplaces are welcome. The floor plan can be center hall, side hall or a variation of the two. Gathering places within the home are as important today as they were 200 years ago. Modern farmhouses include big bright kitchens to accommodate the inevitable influx of friends and family. These days many families spend most of their time in the kitchen cooking, eating, talking, studying and just visiting. Energy efficiency is important, with some farm houses using geothermal heating and cooling and solar panels on the barns.

We are lucky to inherit the traditions of our founding families including their most treasured possession, the farmhouse.

Children's Rooms

When our third child was on the way, we decided to add a bedroom to our home. The room we were planning for our new born son was immediately claimed by his oldest sister. We realized that in fairness our first born deserved first choice of rooms, at that point we began to reevaluate the design of the new room.

This was an epiphany since our mental image of the room changed immediately. In fact the babies room would soon become a toddler’s room, then a preschooler’s room, an elementary school child’s room, then middle school…until eventually it could become a college student’s room. In our planning, we went from wanting the room adjacent to the master bedroom for access to the baby, to realizing that our daughter would soon want distance and privacy from her parents(and vice versa). This is a lesson I try to pass on to my clients who are adding a children’s’ room to their home.

The toddler will be a high school student quicker than we think. Additional sound proofing is inexpensive during construction but costly afterward. Choosing layouts that work both for a small child and a young adult makes everyone’s life easier. Paint and furniture is easy to change, relocating rooms is hard.

The new bedroom we built is the place were my three children gather and where they bring
their friends.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Taking Care of Yourself (Guest Blog about Saunas)

In today’s economic and work environment taking care of your physical and mental health is ever more important. Exercise and healthy lifestyle in general include different kinds of things. But the one single part often missing is relaxation. For me nothing else works as well as a Sauna does. Sauna owners overall say that a Traditional (Finnish type) Sauna offers absolutely the best way to wind down from the stress, tension and noise of everyday life.

I just returned from a trip to my home country, Finland. We own an old country home over there, and it has, of course, a separate sauna building with a wood burning stove. Although it was cold and dark over there (early December being maybe the worst time to travel to Finland), I was really looking forward to it. Heating up the sauna, and bathing in the evenings just by myself, with a complete darkness and quietness outside wore off the jet lag just like that, and I slept better than I ever had. I stayed in our place for three days, and had a sauna bath four times… Not so many people can build a wood burning sauna here in the US, but you can also get a very similar experience in a well designed and built sauna with an electric heater.

Besides relaxation, saunas actually do offer real health benefits, too. Bathing in a proper traditional sauna has among others, these health benefits:

Helps to remove toxins
Cleanses your skin
Soothes aches and pains in muscles and joints
Improves cardiovascular performance
Relieves congestion
Burns calories.

These probably are more important than relaxation for most of the people, but for a Finn, sauna means relaxation and belongs to our way of life. A list of corresponding medical studies can be found at the Finnish Sauna Society web site at

Saunas are actually one of the fastest growing amenities being added to the home today as the aging population continues to focus on bringing wellness into their lifestyle. Adding a Sauna to a home is also another opportunity to add value to the home design that makes it a step above others in the market place. A few things to consider when choosing a sauna:

  • Sauna type; do you already have a certain (framed) space for a custom-made sauna,
    or is a free-standing unit a better choice for you?
  • Do you maybe have an unused separate building, or would you consider to build one? Could you use a pool-side or deck sauna?
  • The size; how many people are going to use it at the same time? If you prefer to lay down on the (top) bench, then you need at least one longish bench set.
  • Choice of wood; do you prefer the traditional cedar with its aroma? Please note that cedar boards tend to turn darker during the years. European Alder might be a better choice.
  • Floor-plan; if you can, plan to have the door (always opens outwards) on a longer wall. This will optimize the heater location, and the circulation of the air in the room.
  • Can you include a window in your sauna? It is a very good thing to have.
    Drain is not required, but if you have it, it is an advantage.

Modern design and technology can make the sauna one of the most stunning additions to a home. The Finnish sauna…where health and relaxation meet. Kalevi Ruuska

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Garden Structures

Nothing reminds us that spring is coming more than digging out the potting soil, the rusted tools, and clay pots. For me it involves cleaning the refuse out of my vegetable garden from the previous year, opening up the deer fencing, and bringing on the roto-tiller. Like many things in life, the process is often more important than the final product. In the end, after planting watering and tending, dozens of vegetable plants and seeds over the course of the summer, if the bugs, the weeds, and the weather let us have a few to ourselves we are truly happy.
A few years back I had a most unusual request come across my table. A husband and wife who are friends of mine had 2 different needs. She wanted a potting shed. He wanted a wood shed. Neither of them wanted to clutter their bucolic setting with too many little outbuildings. Our solution was to combine the two functions.
Their home and farm is located in a beautiful hamlet with a carpenter gothic church and many homes dating from the 1800s or before. The edifice they ask me to design was to define the line between her space-the flower garden and his space-the barn. The barn area was often quite busy and chaotic with his potato crop, and farm equipment. Her garden was equally in flux with new designs and beautiful assortments of flowers and fauna. With my friends help, I designed a carpenter gothic, potting and wood shed. From the barn you see the wood shed; from the house you see the garden and a potting shed. He can walk through the middle of the potting shed to reach the wood on a cold winters evening. She can easily reach her tools in the potting shed from the garden. I particularly love the fact that a small building I designed has joined this hamlet as a working participant of farm and home life.
I think many of us have forgotten how powerful a modest structure can be in the landscape. Eighteenth and nineteenth century southern plantations almost always kept their pigeons or doves in pigeonniers or dovecotes. These small structures were utilitarian, but punctuated and emphasized the larger structures they were near. We design tool sheds, potting sheds, and generator enclosures (and all other buildings) to fit in with their environment and to complement the existing architecture. Garden structures create the feeling of a compound even though as buildings they themselves are quite modest. Because their presence in the landscape can enhance all else, their design deserves just as much attention as their larger cousins.