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Smart Massing Adds Space and Light

Go inside this lakeside cottage to see how massing influences interior shapes 

Boston architect Jeremiah Eck explains how massing—the interplay of a house's height, length, and width—determine its overall shape. It's not the easiest design element for clients to fully understand, but it is fundamental. In the simplest terms, massing is your house in 3-D. And unlike some design elements, there is a right way to achieve optimum massing. In this example, Jeremiah uses a lakeside cottage designed by Paul MacNeely to illustrate six massing principles:

1. Keep the shapes simple
2. Make a statement with the foundation
3. Don't overdo the roof
4. Design dormers with restraint
5. Integrate additions with the major house shapes
6. Use details where they make the most impact

Applying the six principles on the exterior can lead to some interesting interiors. Here Jeremiah describes how massing influences the interior spaces.

Principles 1 and 3—Keep the shapes simple and Don't overdo the roof—Seemingly simple roofs, like the main gable over the living and dining portion of the house, can nonetheless, provide for dramatic interior spaces. The story-and-a-half living space as well as the connecting bedroom balcony are both possible because the living wing and bedroom wing roofs are interwoven. The main gable roof is seen head-on from the street. But the intersecting gable roof isn't. While the main roof is dominant, the intersecting roof runs parallel to the street and brings your eye from the tall focal point to the rest of the house. On the interior that intersection distinguishes the public and private spaces. 

Principles 1 and 3—Keep the shapes simple and Don't overdo the roof (second example)—Because the main roof is offset toward the lake side of the cottage, as the ceiling of the living room slopes down in the opposite direction, a lower one-story space is created with just enough head room for the kitchen. This allowed us to contrast the higher space with a lower more intimate space for working in the kitchen. The addition of exposed beams also give the space a better scale and ties the ceiling rhythm back to the trusses at the living room ceiling.

Principle 2—Make a statement with the foundation—The best application of this principle is demonstrated by the home's recessed entry. Not only does the recess provide shelter, the indentation in the foundation serves to distinguish one wing of the house from the other. 

Principle 4—Design dormers with restraint—My firm incorporated this shed dormer for a specific reason: It contains a small, straightforward switch back stair with just enough width and headroom for travel between the first and second floor. Since it is neither too wide or too tall, it doesn't overwhelm the main roof. 

Principle 4—Design dormers with restraint (second example)—The stair under the shed dormer leads to a balcony overlooking the living space below. The balcony is the sweet spot of this home. From here, one can experience the drama of the central volume or mass of the house, including the exposed decorative roof trusses that align with the tall windows below.

Principle 5—Integrate additions with other house shapes (click next for the interior view)

The cottage's screen porch gave us the perfect opportunity to apply the fifth principle. Instead of centering the porch against the wall, we placed it on the corner, fully establishing its relationship to the main roof. By integrating the main cottage roof with the low hip roof of the porch, we were able to give the interior ceiling of the screen porch a unique look and feel. Interior wood tie-beams at the spring line of the hip help prevent spreading and also contribute to a better screen porch scale. Like the kitchen, these exposed beams also give the space a more intimate quality.

Principle 6—Use details where they make the most impact—The addition of a simple, small window detail on the exterior corner of the cottage helps balance the bedroom wing of the house with the living wing. To prove this point, refer to the full front exterior shot of the house (see top photo) and cover up the small, triple window detail with your hand. Without this detail, something is definitely missing and the exterior appears unbalanced and awkward. On the interior, the window detail serves as the perfect spot for high windows-just the right height, well above the tub area of the master bath. On the outside, we have balance. On the inside, we have an appropriate detail and daylighting source that provides punch without sacrificing privacy. 

If you want to learn more about how Jeremiah's firm made a statement with this home's foundation (Principle 2) read How Great Houses Take Shape from Fine Homebuilding's Annual Houses Issue, #195 (Spring/Summer 2008), pp. 68-73.              
Photos by Eric Roth
From Fine Homebuilding195 (Houses)