By Heidi Powell
Have you ever thought much about the simple truth that where we are affects how we feel? Why are we drawn to some places and put off by others? The space in which we live or work, influences our mood. Some places, quite plain and simply put, feel like home. Sometimes this can have less to do with aesthetics than with evolutionary, personal, and cultural needs of which we may be unaware. Humans as a whole look for spaces that environmental psychologists call “a womb with a view.” This is a brief description to explain our need for prospect, or a large and bright space with a broad and interesting view, that is seen from the comfort of a snug and protected refuge.
Frank Lloyd Wright called this delicate balance of prospect and refuge, nesting and perching. Many of us love to look out at a tumultuous sea from the comfort of a warm and protected home, where the waves can’t reach us. As long as we’re in charge, the waves are exciting, not scary. We are bored by overly homogenous places such as tracts of cookie cutter houses. “Largely to cut builders’ costs, many newer homes have the wide-open floor plans, constant ceiling heights, and monotonous lighting that create too much bland prospect and not enough refuge,” says Winifred Gallagher, in her book House Thinking. For the eye to appreciate a grand open space it requires some contrasting smaller spaces or areas with lowered ceilings. It’s the juxtaposition of the two that is intriguing. A lower ceiling over a fireplace, a cozy window seat, an interesting balcony, a sloped ceiling in a sitting area, and other architectural details are the difference between the mundane and the inspiring.
Everyone loves a surprise. In nature, winding trails lead to places unknown and as we meander we catch glimpses of clearings ahead. A home must first and foremost be a safe haven, but it also needs the right degree of enticement to draw us through it. It’s these architectural details that provide the little surprises along the way.
Light and sun play an important role in how we feel in our homes. On a warm spring day, do you ever find yourself moving with the sun from room to room in your home? If you haven’t, then try it and see how it makes you feel. Homes designed without recognition of the light arising in the east and setting in the west lose the chance to take advantage of the sun’s rays throughout the day. Ideally, a master bedroom is oriented to the east while a living room is oriented to the southwest to catch the afternoon and early evening light. Even if your home isn’t laid out this way, turning a spare east or south facing bedroom into a cozy sitting room or home office can let you take advantage of a little sunshine at the time of day that best suits your lifestyle.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly used experience sampling to try to quantify our quality of life and determine where in the home people feel happiest. He found that the basement is the part of the home in which men have the greatest number of positive moods, whereas women are more likely to seek refuge from others’ demands in the master bathroom. Explaining his findings he said, that like a man in his basement a woman in her tub enjoys “one of the few places where she doesn’t feel hassled, where she doesn’t feel obligated to do anything but focus on herself.”
Today’s family enjoys a large great room that connects the kitchen and living space. This is the most popular remodeling request that we get here in the mid-Willamette Valley. However, family members also enjoy smaller personal spaces for each to recharge and fulfill a need for alone time. A master bath retreat designed to be a personal sanctuary is just as important to the rhythm and balance of the home as the great room. Even a dining area set off from the larger space can provide a special place. Alcoves, inviting porches, and custom woodwork are the features that help a home “feel right.” A home that has “character,” one that is connected with nature, has plenty of light, and is oriented to make best use of sunlight, this is the type of home that makes us feel good. A well designed home lets us be in control over when we want to be connected to the world or separate from it.
Home designer Robert A.M. Stern observes, “everyone wants the same things in a house – light, coziness, spaces for the family to gather, and other areas that let each person hide out, have a cry, read a book. It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask, yet so many of us end up buying the house we hate the least.” When thinking of remodeling your home, try to think in this environmental-behavioral way. Ask yourself, what type of experiences do I want to have in my ideal home. As Gallagher puts it, “our houses are the stages on which much of the drama of daily life is enacted … It only makes sense to ensure that our rooms cue the kinds of thoughts and feelings that help us to be happy and productive.
Heidi Powell is Co-owner of Powell Construction, an award winning design-build company established in 1990, and a member of the National Kitchen and Bath Association. Heidi can be reached at the design studio located on South 3rd Street in Corvallis or at 541-752-0805.