Home & Garden

Design translations

hen you get the up-close look at this year's batch of Home of the Month designs, don't get stuck on the obvious -- a contemporary-style house sitting in a rolling field or on a wooded lot. Search for the specific -- how natural materials are used to incorporate color or interest, how carefully placed windows allow in natural light or scenic views without obstruction from surrounding buildings or how storage issues are resolved with clever built-ins.

There are details and concepts you can envision and incorporate into your own home.

Shining a spotlight on examples of exemplary house design is the intention of Home of the Month, a joint collaboration by The News & Observer and N.C. State University's College of Design. In its third year, Home of the Month invites architects from across the state to submit their finest residential designs for consideration in a yearlong series in The N&O. Today we show the submissions we received for the 2008 series. On the cover are the nine designs that were selected by a three-judge panel as the top of the crop of 24, plus an editor's choice.

On the last Saturday of each month, beginning Feb. 23, look for one of the top designs to be profiled by faculty, graduate students and alumni of the design school. Not only will the aspects of good design be pointed out, but you also will get a bird's-eye view of the kinds of houses that architects are creating as solutions to area homeowners' in-home daily needs and to the clients' desire for more meaningful living experiences.

What stands out among this year's entries are the many design concepts that could easily translate to any home. People just have to be able to see beyond the design style in the photographs, said R. Christian Schmitt of Schmitt Walker Architects in Charleston, S.C.

"Good design is good design no matter what style it is," Schmitt said by phone. "The good aspects of any of these houses can be applied to any style."

He pointed to a renovated Craftsman-style entry that made the final cut. "These people built a separate building on the back and renovated the front. That kind of design shows people what you can do with a very simple house in a simple neighborhood. The finished product is very upscale and elegant, but it is done with very modest means."

The panelists

Duo Dickinson of Duo Dickinson Architect of Madison, Conn., and Christine L. Albertsson of Albertsson Hansen Architecture in Minneapolis found the entries to be sensitive to their sites and to the environment.

"We were very surprised with the variety of scale of the projects, but also the variety of the context," said Dickinson, co-founder of the Congress of Residential Architecture, the first national organization of residential designers. "There were some edgy, cutting-edge designs and stuff that was user-friendly."

Referring to examples of the projects' "freshness," Dickinson pointed to how some architects' use of simple steel systems or engineered wood systems enabled them to have "very basic structural grids, big overhangs and very simple shapes that were either twisted a little bit or shaped a little bit to get a big bang for their buck."

"There was a lot of innovation and thoughtfulness evident," he added.

The absence of traditional colonials, tiny ranch houses or shotgun houses laced with old-fashioned fixtures and charm is not to imply that these beautiful old homes do not exist, but that they are not what most people are looking to build -- at least not without an updated bent more conducive to the way we live today.

"Everybody wants to live in a modern way," noted Albertsson, a member of the architecture faculty at the University of Minnesota. "Nobody comes to an architect and says, 'I want a tiny kitchen, with a few rooms and six to eight windows throughout.' The image of the historical is more of what they are interested in preserving. The problem is that to create that image from scratch is more expensive" than what many people have to spend.

No doubt a few of the Home of the Month selections are fancy, expensive houses, but, Schmitt said, "what's interesting is that you can put those next to one of the more modest, contemporary houses and you can see some of the same design concepts in them -- open plan, natural light features."

The Home of the Month project gets people to see that you can have some of these meaningful design considerations "without having to spend millions of dollars."