Tag Archives: architectural theory

Pattern Language No.159: Light On Two Sides Of Every Room


“When they have a choice, people will always gravitate to those rooms which have light on two sides, and leave the rooms which are lit only from one side unused and empty”.

Architect/theorist Christopher Alexander conceptualized his Pattern #159: ‘Light On Two Sides Of Every Room’ in his 1977 book, A Pattern Language. Alexander identified that “when they have a choice, people will always gravitate to those rooms which have light on two sides, and leave the rooms which are lit only from one side unused and empty.”

He further maintained that, “this pattern, perhaps more than any other single pattern, determines the success or failure of a room.”

Why is this? Alexander does point out that his own experimentation, from which he drew his conclusions, was rather informal. But the phenomenon is very real. What is it about certain patterns of light that attract people or enhance space and volumes effectively? There are several probable reasons why a room or space with lit on two sides (bilateral daylighting) is more successful than one with light only from one side.

Firstly, bilateral lighting instinctively feels more natural. Balanced light – light coming from more than one direction – is more akin to natural light. In the great outdoors we have both direct sunlight and light from the sky itself – light coming from all different directions. This helps provide depth, giving us clear information about shapes and forms. A strong light source from one direction tends to flatten our views, providing less visual information.


Balanced light – light coming from more than one direction – is more akin to ‘natural’ light. In the great outdoors we have both direct sunlight and light from the sky itself – light coming from all different directions. This helps provide depth, giving us clear information about shapes and forms.

Another reason could be related to brightness and contrast ratios. Take for example the case where one is engaged in conversation in a room lit by a single window, without the benefit of natural side lighting. Because that person’s face is in harsh contrast, it’s more difficult to see facial expressions, giving us considerably less information about their mood or response. This in turn is thought to induce some amount of psychological discomfort, which we in turn project into feelings about the room itself.

The third culprit is glare. The Illuminating Engineering Society of North America [IESNA] identifies glare as two sensations, disability glare and discomfort glare. Disability glare is defined as “the effect of stray light in the eye whereby visibility and visual performance are reduced”. Discomfort glare is defined as “glare that produces discomfort. It does not necessarily interfere with visual performance or visibility”.


“Locate each room so that it has outdoor space outside it on at least two sides, and then place windows in these outdoor walls so that natural light falls into every room from more than one direction.”

Researchers know that the relative location of a light source is a factor contributing to discomfort glare. In the present example, the high contrast between the window aperture and the surrounding surfaces is much higher in a unilaterally lit room than one which is bilaterally lit. The direct impacts of glare are eyestrain and discomfort. Indirect physiological impacts of glare can include red and itchy eyes, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, and fatigue.

Here are excerpts from A Pattern Language, Pattern #159: Light On Two Sides Of Every Room:

When they have a choice, people will always gravitate to those rooms which have light on two sides, and leave the rooms which are lit only from one side unused and empty.


Locate each room so that it has outdoor space outside it on at least two sides, and then place windows in these outdoor walls so that natural light falls into every room from more than one direction.

 The arrangement of daylight in a room, and the presence of windows on two sides, is fundamental. If you build a room with light on one side only, you can be almost certain that you are wasting your money. People will stay out of that room if they can possibly avoid it. Of course, if all the rooms are lit from one side only, people will have to use them. But we can be fairly sure that, they are subtly uncomfortable there, always wishing they weren’t there, wanting to leave – just because we are so sure of what people do when they do have the choice.


Infinity Pools in Home Design: 5 Best Practices

An infinity pool can be used to frame how your home is to be perceived from a pre-selected vantage point.

Our firm was recently commissioned to design a significant remodel for a residential client whose brief included, notably, an infinity pool.

An infinity pool can be a powerful element with which to both showcase a home and beautifully enhance the experience of life within the home. Here are five best practices we recommend when your design includes an infinity pool:

1. Think of the pool as framing a picture.
2. Locate the pool to enhance your key view.
3. Use the pool to conserve energy.
4. Consider it’s form and materials carefully.
5. Make the pool a practical asset.

Think of the Pool as Framing a Picture
Utilize your infinity pool as part of your kit of parts to frame and enhance how your home will be perceived from a distance. For example, the pool will lend more grandeur if placed as part of the entry promenade as opposed to being placed in the back yard. Similarly, it will have an entirely different effect located on the sunny south side of the home as opposed to the shadier north side.

While it may or may not turn out to be practical to locate the pool on the entry side or even the sunny side of the home, the option should at least be identified and considered within the context of other factors informing its ultimate placement on the site.


An infinity pool can be a powerful tool to frame and enhance a primary view.

Locate The Pool To Enhance Your Key View
An infinity pool can be a powerful tool to frame and enhance a primary view.

You must decide first which is the key view from the perspective of looking outward from the site. Some sites are fortunate to have several views from which to choose – if such is the case, it’s all the more important that you evaluate them carefully. List them, with the one most important to you at the top of the list, and secondary views farther down the list. The view at the top of the list is the one to be emphasized as your key view.

Next, choose which room or rooms are to be oriented towards your key view. Is it to be the living room, the dining room, the master bedroom, or all of the above?

Once these decisions are made it becomes a relatively simple matter to decide where within your key view shed the infinity pool is to be placed. Thinking of the pool as a vast horizontal mirror, its surface can powerfully reflect and magnify your key view.

Use The Pool To Conserve Energy
An infinity pool can be a practical asset when it comes to conserving energy. As a reflective surface, if placed advantageously the pool can be used to direct additional solar energy in the form of sunlight, thereby reducing the home’s energy demand in terms of lighting. In hot climes or on hotter days in more temperate climates air cooled by the pool can be used for cross-ventilation as part of a strategy of passive solar cooling for the home.


The materials used to construct the pool and surrounding decks should complement those utilized in the home’s exterior.

Consider the Pool’s Form and Materials Carefully
Your pool’s form and geometry will need to complement the style of the home itself. A rectilinear, orthogonal pool will always complement a home designed in the modern style – it may not necessarily enhance a home designed in, say, French Country style. A curvilinear pool will lend itself to some architectural styles and not to others. So too, the materials selected in the design of the pool will need to match or at least complement those selected for the exterior of the home itself.

Make the Pool a Practical Asset
As a recreational feature, your infinity pool’s function is not simply to enhance your home aesthetically – it’s also your place for swimming! While sorting through all the other factors informing your pool’s design, its crucial not to loose track of what makes a good swimming pool.

Locating the pool for good solar access is essential – nobody wants to swim in a shaded pool! This means that the pool’s relationship to both nearby trees and the house itself need to be carefully considered: neither element should be permitted to cast a shadow on the pool while it’s in use.

For the sake of comfortable access it’s best to locate the pool closer to the home rather than farther away. This is actually an added advantage in terms of most of the best practices described earlier. A pool positioned closer to the home will serve better to capture and reflect distant views than one farther away, and a pool placed nearer the home will be much more effective in bouncing daylight into the interior than one farther away.

Finally in terms of practicality, the pool must lend itself to a strong sense of privacy if its usefulness is to be fully realized. Enclosing it to some degree with building elements, privacy fences or landscaping – placed carefully so as not to compromise the other best practices described earlier – will be critical to the design of the successful infinity pool.


Pattern Language No.117: A Sheltering Roof

House in Zakopane, Poland

House in Zakopane, Poland

Architect/theorist Christopher Alexander conceptualized Pattern #117: Sheltering Roof in his 1977 book, A Pattern Language. Alexander identified that the most fundamental and archetypal element defining a home is it’s roof.

More fundamentally, if the roof cannot be felt visually around the home it’s not nurturing, doesn’t satisfy the psychological need for shelter. The roof shelters us when it embraces, covers and surrounds the process of living. Alexander’s insight is that we must make the entire surface of the roof visible, bring the eaves low at gathering places like entries to lend human scale, and build the top story of the building right within the roof.

Minka style traditional Japanese home

Minka style traditional Japanese home

Pattern No.117 is closely tied to Pattern No.116: ‘Cascade of Roofs’, of which Alexander wrote, “Few buildings will be structurally and socially intact, unless the floors step down toward the ends of wings, and unless the roof, accordingly, forms a cascade.”

A strong sense of shelter is probably the most important aesthetic requirement of a work of architecture. But the roof is a sadly neglected element of the vast majority of works being designed today. When the roof is emphasized in contemporary work it is all too often an over-stated “look how big and expensive I am” exaggeration rather than an authentic expression of the nature of shelter-making and security at the subconscious, visceral level.

House number 8, Blaise  Hamlet, England aka Circular Cottage

House number 8, Blaise Hamlet, England a.k.a. “Circular Cottage”.

Neither a large roof nor prominent overhangs by themselves can be sufficient to the task of providing a sense of shelter. The roof, instead, must be an integral to the living spaces which must exist beneath and within the roof itself.

“Circular Cottage” (right) is a rubble stone lime mortar thatched cottage in Blaise Hamlet near Bristol, England. It was designed by John Nash, master of the picturesque architectural style and designer of, among others, Buckingham Palace in London. The cottage, along with the rest of the hamlet, is owned by the UK’s National Trust. The home also demonstrates other timeless patterns making it emotionally attractive such as No.116 ‘Cascade of Roofs’, No.239 ‘Small Panes’, No.242 ‘Front Door Bench’ and No.231 ‘Dormer Windows’.

Entry of Broadleys House, Windermere. Charles Voysey architect, 1898.

Entrance to Broadleys House, Windermere. Charles Voysey architect, 1898.

In each of these examples, although the location, historical era, scale, and style of the home are vastly different, the concept of a shelter-giving roof is not. In each, the roof is a major visual element of the building when seen from a distance. In each one lives within the roof at the upper floor, it flow gently downward to greet us at the entry, and projects strongly outward to provide the necessary sense of comfort and reassurance, all tests of a successful sheltering roof.

Your “Away Room”: A Quiet Place of Remove

His and her’s compartmentalized built-in desk alcoves.

A couple’s compartmentalized built-in desk alcoves. With two separate alcoves, each partner in the relationship is assured of having an absolute albeit small domain over which they have complete control.

Christopher Alexander conceptualized the idea of an “Away Room” in his 1977 book, A Pattern Language. In it he recommends that people living together also need to have opportunities to be alone, and suggests that each household member should ideally have a space of one’s own. In the best case scenario this should comprise a separate room affording private space, but if that is not practical, he writes, everyone should have at the very least an alcove space away from the business of the household with at least a modicum of enclosure and of privacy.

Author Sarah Susana popularized and built upon the same concept in her Not So Big House series of books, encouraging homeowners to create a room in which to escape near the common areas of the home, but offering some privacy from the noise and socializing of the other spaces.

Here is a portion of the original description from A Pattern Language:

Pattern #141: A Room Of One’s Own
The problem: No one can be close to others, without also having frequent opportunities to be alone.
The solution: Give each member of the family a room of his own, especially adults. A minimum “room of one’s own” is an alcove with desk, shelves, and curtain. The maximum is a cottage – like a Teenager’s Cottage (Pattern #154), or an Old Age Cottage (Pattern #155). In all cases, especially for adults, place these rooms at the far ends of the intimacy gradient — far from the common rooms.

Designing the “Away Room”
While it’s clearly possible to create a room for each household member, the ideal of each adult having their own private room and each child having their own bedroom is obviously infeasible for the vast majority of American households.

Alexander himself identified this limitation, stating, “for the man and woman, give each of them a separate room, beyond the couples realm they share; it may be an expanded dressing room, a home workshop, or…an alcove off some other room.”

Susanka, picking up on this theme, has written, “If the homeowners value visual separation but aren’t concerned about hearing other activities going on in the house, you may be able to create an alcove that’s hidden from view but is right off the main living area. If it’s also important to them not to be bothered when using this space, you may want to include visual cues, such as a drape or folding screen that, when drawn across the alcove, indicates the desire for privacy.”

She continues, “One option for visual separation is an upstairs landing. In many homes, these spaces are seldom used during the day when family members congregate on the main living level. So if it’s large enough, this area can provide an adequate spot for a small desk or hobby area.”

This obviously is not the ideal, and generally in fact the farther the alcove is located from primary circulation areas – with their accompanying noise and bustle – the better. All things being equal, if the house is small but sufficient space exists in the master bedroom it may be possible to admit of a built-in desk subdivided into two cubby-like alcoves, one for each partner in the relationship.

The master bedroom, being the sanctum sanctorum, is unlikely to be casually invaded by the general family buzz, thus almost guaranteeing privacy and repose. With two separate alcoves, each partner in a relationship is assured of having an absolute albeit small domain over which they have complete control. And finally, they can reach a tacit arrangement to occupy the entire room all to themselves on alternative days or at different times of, say, the same evening if need be, essentially creating a timeshare.

All this may seem to be quite an elaborate exercise for many who read this blog, yet the “Away Room” concept does meet a fundamental human need, that for occasional, yet complete, privacy.

Quoting American sociologists Foote and Cottrell as cited in A Pattern Language, “There is a critical point beyond which closer contact with another person will no longer lead to an increase in empathy. Up to a certain point, intimate interaction with others increases the capacity to empathize with them. But when others are too constantly present, the organism appears to develop a protective resistance to responding to them. . . .”

“Families who provide time and space for privacy, and who teach children the utility and satisfaction of withdrawing for private reveries, will show higher average empathic capacity than those who do not.”

Ten Effective Daylighting Tips for Residential Design

What is effective daylighting?
Daylighting design leverages sunlight to enhance a building’s interior illumination through direct, diffused and reflected lighting approaches. It can be used to complement electrical lighting, create more stimulating environments, and significantly reduce energy costs.

Why is it important?
Effective use of daylighting can improve one’s mental state, enhance moods, boost focus and mental acuity, lower fatigue, and reduce eyestrain. Other significant benefits have been documented, from hastening healing in healthcare environments to improved student performance in educational environments.

What are the financial implications?
In the short term the costs of implementing effective daylighting measures are readily offset by energy efficiencies resulting from reduced electrical bills. In the long-term, the superior qualities of the interior spaces which result will realize tangible increase in the resale value of the home. Continue reading

City Planning According to Artistic Principles

 The Piazza della Signoria in Florence Bernardo Bellotto, c.1742 Oil on canvas. Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest, Hungary

The Piazza della Signoria in Florence
Bernardo Bellotto, c.1742
Oil on canvas. Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest, Hungary

Camillo Sitte (1843-1903) was a noted Viennese painter, architect, theorist, and planner. He distinguished himself in the art of city planning culminating in his seminal work City Planning According to Artistic Principles with great influence and authority on the evolution of urban planning and its regulation on the European continent. This work has subsequently gone on to influence generations of urban designers and architects throughout the world.

City Planning According to Artistic Principles was an aesthetic criticism of the design of urban spaces as they were being realized at the end of the nineteenth century. While mainly concerned with urban planning, the book has had a deep influence on architecture inasmuch as the two are integrally intertwined disciplines.

modenapiazzeFor Sitte, the most important aspect of civic buildings was not the architectural form of the buildings themselves but rather their how their form, characteristics, and deployment as building blocks contributed to the character and quality of urban spaces. In preparing his work, Sitte travelled extensively to study the spatial structures of then-contemporary city plazas of his own native Vienna, in Paris, Salzburg, Rothenburg on the Tauber, Dresden, and dozens of other European cities, carefully sketching their physical planimetrics, elevations of their significant buildings, and placement of statues, fountains and other monuments within those spaces.

He similarly studied their earlier precedents in Athens, Rome, Florence, Venice and Pisa. He applauded the practice in ancient Greece, Rome, and during the Italian Renaissance of deploying buildings of monumental character as the physical walls of those plazas and urban spaces. Imagining what civic life in these urban spaces must have been like in the times of Pericles, Julius Caesar, and Lorenzo the Magnificent, he reflected on how the architects and city planners of those times had designed aesthetically superior spaces reinforcing civic culture.

Sitte criticized the trend of contemporary urban planners to isolate the placement of significant civic buildings, churches, and monuments as celebrated objects, confronting them as to how such elements had been presented in former times, not as individual objects but instead as ornaments woven into the tapestry of the urban space.

He similarly criticized the regular, obsessive order of contemporary plazas being built by contrasting them to the irregularity of those of the medieval city. More importantly, he identified camillo-sitte-study-of-medieval-plazasfrom a psychological viewpoint the importance of proportion to human scale as critical to the design of effective civic spaces. In so doing he opposed trends among his contemporaries towards broad, over-scaled boulevards, avenues, and squares, enjoining instead that, “a square should be seen as a room: it should form an enclosed space”.

Among his most valuable contributions to urban design theory and practice is his implementation of the figure-ground diagram. His diagrams, carefully drawn to scale, captured planimetrically the formal patterns of the urban spaces he studied. By delineating the solid masses of buildings (“figure”) against the negative space between them (“ground”) he helped popularize an invaluable tool in the analysis of civic spaces.

The Architecture of the Mesoamerican Ballgame

imagesThe Mesoamerican ballgame was an ancient sport with ritual associations  played by the pre-Columbian peoples of Ancient Mexico and Central America. It’s origins are thought to date from the 15th century B.C. and, in it’s ancient version, ended with the Spanish conquest in the 16th century A.D. Thus, it endured for some 2700 years.

Although some iterations permitted the use of forearms or rackets, in the most common version of the game the players kept the ball in play with their hips, buttocks, and knees. The ball was made of the rubberized latex sap of the lowland Castilla elastica tree, ranged from 10-12 inches in diameter, and typically weighed 3 to 6 lbs.


Ball Court at the Mayan archeological site of Copan, Honduras

The game is thought to have been involved with geophysical activities including the movement of the sun, and rituals including the death and descent of the sun into the underworld, the recycling of crops, of vegetation, of seasons and of thus the regeneration of life itself. The ritual significance of the game is reflected in the expenditure of effort made in the building of ball courts, many in ceremonial precincts, and in the artwork devoted to the game.


The Lords of Day and Night play ball against each other on an I-shaped ballcourt divided into four quarters (Codex Colombino: PL: 11).

In The Mesoamerican Ballgame (University of Arizona Press) contributors Linda Schele and David Freidel describe the ballgame as “a central focus of power and mystery to the pre-Columbian Lowland Maya. More than a game, it was a passionate play with intent to move the cycles of the natural and social worlds across the dangerous thresholds of oblivion”.

The ballgame was played within a large structure built of blocks of native limestone. In plan, the structure generally can be described as a long, narrow alleyway: this was thus the playing field upon which the game, itself a ritual, was enacted.


The Great Ballcourt at Chitzen Itza.
© 2013 DMSA

In early iterations this alleyway was apparently open-ended, without terminating walls. In later versions, the long axis was terminated with end-walls and side-courts, resulting in an “I”-shaped configuration in which the long axis of the playing field is terminated by two cross-axis spaces. In general all of the later ball courts apparently have this same “I”-shaped plan form.

Ballcourt at Coba, the Yucatan, Mexico. © 2013 DMSA

Ballcourt at Coba, the Yucatan, Mexico.
© 2013 DMSA





In section, the playing alley was flanked by limestone block walls with both horizontal and sloping (or, more rarely, vertical) surfaces. Although the finishes are no longer extant these walls were originally lime plastered and apparently brightly painted, al fresco. Figures carved intaglio covered these walls, commemorating ritual victories and losses, and usually the ritual decapitation of the winning captain to fertilize the soil.

Ball courts were built by the Toltec, Olmec, Zapotec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations, and archeological sites have been found from northern Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica. There are an estimated 1,300 known ballcourts in MesoAmerica, with a geographic extent of over a million square miles.