Lessons From a Small Studio
The Russian River studio designed by architect Cathy Schwabe serves as a workspace and guest house. Her clients, a photographer and a writer, also use the space to host workshops and large group meetings. With such specific demands placed upon a studio, it might be easy to ignore the relevance of such a project when considering a whole house design. However, looking at projects within a different context, and with such different goals, can often provide inspiration and insight into strategies not easily found in more literal project comparisons.
Recently, I asked Cathy to elaborate on the some of the major design strategies used in this project, but with an eye towards those that can be replicated in other house designs. Here, in her own words, are the most noteworthy:
One Big Room:
Almost all residential clients share the same three goals. Their project design needs to be comfortable, functional and beautiful. The idea of using one shared space for a combination of functions is an increasingly common method of responding to all three goals, whether at the scale of the main space in this small studio or the more familiar “great room” within a larger dwelling.
The specific functional requirements for each “big room” will not always be the same, yet they will present similar design challenges:
- Since there is no longer a place for everything, they need to be thoughtfully designed so that there is a space for everything.
- They will need some degree of flexibility to accommodate multiple uses.
- They will need to work well for a group of people and yet still feel comfortable for just one person.
The “big room” in this project is essentially a rectangle whose corners and one side have been pushed and stretched to include three saddlebag-like alcoves. Two of the alcoves can be open or closed to the main space with easy-to-slide, brightly colored panels. The panels, when open, reveal the two individual workspaces. Each has its own window. Though small in size, they are comfortable to work in since they borrow space and light from the main room. When the panels are closed, and therefore appear as colorful wall elements, the shape of the room becomes that of a simple rectangle with an open corner alcove and one fixed interior element, a wood burning stove.
The room as a whole lends itself easily to the flexibility of furniture arrangements the varied group functions require. The wood stove provides both a heat source as well as a focal hearth element for the room. This works well for a group, but it also provides an element next to which one or two people can sit and feel they are within their own personal space. The design of the open alcove and southwest corner framed with glass doors share an intimacy of scale and a sense of protected enclosure. When you’re within them, these two corners allow the option for no, limited and/or more active interaction with the rest of the space, which itself might or might not be filled with other people. It is the combination of the woodstove, connection to the outdoors, scale, enclosure and choices for interaction that allow a space large enough for 20 to 30 people to feel small enough for just one or two.
The Indoor/Outdoor Connection:
Maximizing and providing options to take advantage of the indoor/outdoor connection is part of almost every residential design at some level. This studio has a lovely site: set in a rural area, slightly cut into the top of a hill with open views across an open grass land. The abundant sunlight, seasonal fog and natural breeze allow the outdoors to be used as a natural extension of the interior space for most of the year. In the hot summer, which is the most challenging part of this climate, the natural ventilation through operable low southern and high northern windows, and the shade from the roof overhangs and the trees, keeps many of the exterior and indoor spaces cool.
The pavilion-like main space is visually and physically open to the outdoors through the many windows and doors. The 1-inch difference in floor elevation from the concrete floor of the interior as it becomes the concrete paving of the adjacent exterior spaces creates a near seamless link as you enter and exit the studio. The paved southern exterior edge is experienced as a narrow porch or walkway element, while the windows above it increase the perceived size of the interior space. The concrete paving transitions to stone at the western end of the building to form a large terrace bounded by plants and a stone covered retaining wall. The retaining wall continues through the length of the building and is capped with wood in the interior to become a shelf. Sitting against the wall, either inside within the alcove or outside on the terrace, you feel nestled into the hill with a sense of being visually and physically linked.
The visual comfort of daylighting comes when the contrast between the natural light within a space and the light outdoors is reduced sufficiently to feel balanced within the eye. When this occurs, the eye’s natural adjustment to changing light levels becomes imperceptible as one moves or looks from the outside to the inside. There is no glare, no resulting eye strain, and one can see clearly at all times of the day.
Light in the main studio space is brought in from windows and doors on all four sides, as well as through skylights. Openings are placed within reasonable proximity to one another, but on separate walls to take in light from more than one orientation at the same time. This helps balance light within the eye itself as the direct light coming from one window or door is offset and balanced by the indirect light coming in from another. Other openings are set perpendicular to a light colored, solid surface—a wall, the floor or a desktop. This placement helps to direct light deep into the interior and reflect the light onto other surfaces. For example, the surface of the main interior wall and that of the skylight shafts above are in one continuous plane. Light coming through the skylights washes down the wall, which is then reflected by the wall into the room and back up to the ceiling plane. The ceiling then reflects the light down to the space below. Using a perpendicular surface as an indirect light source helps raise the interior ambient light level and draws light more fully into a space than would be possible if the skylight were just floating in the ceiling plane.
Planning for change:
Not all projects are completed at one time. Sometimes the design itself has a more open ended quality and the completed building will accommodate certain uses that cannot become evident until after the space is in use. Cost-based phasing and planning for anticipated future uses can usually be solved with a few practical moves. Nevertheless, planning for what you don’t yet know is an interesting challenge.
The design of the bathroom/laundry area is a good example of cost-based planning. The room began with a toilet, a floor drain set into the concrete, and a sink mounted into a long counter under which there was a base cabinet and a space that housed power and venting for a washer and dryer. Though not necessarily a desire among the clients during the design phase, the washer and dryer were eventually added later, as was a tiled shower.
The larger closable workspace as well as the loft space that runs above it were also designed and built to meet anticipated future needs. The workspace, designed first as a darkroom and photo storage space, was also envisioned as an additional workspace with a smaller darkroom, which it became almost immediately thanks to deliberately placed walls, utilities and a sliding door opening. The loft space is currently accessed by a ladder in front of a high interior opening. It was designed with many possible future uses, which include a more easily accessible storage area, a workspace and or a sleeping space that could be accessed by an exterior stair, an interior rolling access stair ladder, or both. The floor was framed to accept the load for all of these options, and the exterior window was framed so that it could become either a door or a much larger window for improved light, air and access depending on the use of the space.
If a space works well for a list of defined yet different group and individual uses, it will probably also work well for uses that have not yet been imagined. And so far this has proven to be true. Added group functions have included several musical performances, various types of workshops, a wedding and a memorial service. The advent of wireless, not yet commonplace during the design phase, along with the use of smaller laptops or tablet devices, has affected the individual work patterns in particular. The creative workplace shifts often away from the tether of a fixed work surface and storage space and into comfortable chairs both inside and out. When the work needs to be put to one side, the device is closed and returned to the workspace or left on a side table like a book.
Architect: Cathy Schwabe www.cathyschwabearchitecture.com
The studio form and its exterior materials (cedar board and batten/corrugated metal) were inspired by the local agricultural vernacular, the Sonoma Barns.
Two work areas borrow light and space from the main room. A storage loft awaits transformation into a bedroom. The result of Cathy's daylighting strategy is most easily seen at the entrance of the home just beyond the green sliding door.
An alcove off the main space. Though the space is tall, being nestled into the hillside affords a sense of comfort. Windows are placed carefully to provide views to the outdoors and balanced natural light indoors.
A RAIS wood stove near the southwest corner of the studio serves as a focal point of the main room. Combined with the lowered ceiling and glass doors, this corner provides a more private, intimate space, even though it's still very much a part of the main room.
The southern elevation. The studio, patios and outbuildings on the property are carved into the landscape.
The west elevation of the Russian River Studio. A workspace, guest house and gathering place for a writer and a photographer.