Tiny Tuesday: A Pattern Language

This book is an encyclopedia of architectural forms that work well. At every step it encourages the readers to think about what makes a place functional, or comfortable, giving them tools to use these essential forms in their own designs. It’s required reading for any architect or developer, and useful for anybody who would build, buy, or remodel a house.

There are 253 entries, or “patterns”, and each is specific yet adaptable. Every pattern cross-references other patterns that complement it so that you can browse endlessly – at over 1000 pages, you wouldn’t want to read the book cover to cover anyway. For example, Pattern 22: Nine Per Cent Parking states how much land to allocate to vehicles, and directs you to Pattern 97: Shielded Parking and Pattern 103: Small Parking Lots for several ways to accomplish this goal.

The patterns are organized from large scale to small scale. The book begins with the optimal size of an entire nation (Pattern 1: Independent Regions) and works down through cities, communities, neighborhoods, properties, and room layouts, finishing with minute construction details (e.g. Pattern 237: Solid Doors With Glass) and furnishings (e.g. Pattern 251: Different Chairs).

Some patterns are counterintuitive. Pattern 134: Zen View argues that the best view from a property should come from a transitional space, so it’s rarely seen, to keep the appreciation of that view ever strong. Other patterns have practical problems. Pattern 109: Long Thin House proposes that extending a living space along a single axis aids privacy and daylighting, but this configuration adds considerable expense both in construction cost and in heating bills. (As a rule, the book assumes you’re building in a mild climate; adjusting for snow, ice, and extreme cold is left to the reader.)

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Pages from “Pattern 106: Positive Outdoor Space”, which proposes defining the spaces between buildings as outdoor rooms.

I like how frequently the authors challenge social conventions. Pattern 100: Pedestrian Streets argues that car-filled streets damage social relationships in neighborhoods. Pattern 144: Bathing Room proposes a single large bathroom for an entire family (with the toilet alone in a closeable alcove) to increase openness and restore the pleasure of bathing. Pattern 188: Bed Alcove opines that American-style bedrooms are awkward, with lots of wasted space. The authors suggest instead to place each bed into a nook, effectively creating a room-within-a-room with a curtain for privacy. This proposal goes hand in hand with tiny house philosophy – the bed is used only for sleeping, so it should take as little space as possible the rest of the day.

But two other patterns provide the best argument for small-house living. Pattern 78: House for One Person establishes that many people live alone (this is even more true today than when the book was published in 1977) and that one person requires little differentiation of space – a single room with alcoves for various functions will suffice. And Pattern 79: Your Own Home begins, “People cannot be genuinely comfortable and healthy in a house which is not theirs.” It goes on to attack the very concept of rental property for preventing people from attaining a sense of home. But land is limited and so are budgets, and it becomes clear that small houses are both necessary and sufficient.

Thanks to Russell Montemayor for the reading suggestion.

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