The Patterns I Used in My House

A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander (Website) is a description of the process of building based on the idea that building invokes patterns. I have listed here the patterns from the book which made the most impact on my building of my house. I have not tried to duplicate information in the book, while I feel the pattern names are reasonably obvious, having a copy of the book will make things more clear.

25. Access to Water

water access view
South view from picnic point.
photo credit: Topher Belknap

This pattern comes from the towns section of the book. Since my house is on the water, I feel I want to keep a portion to allow my neighbors access to the water. This involves making sure they know they are invited to use what I call "picnic point", a flat grassy area, where I installed a bench to sit and watch the sunsets. The other aspect is to remove the local feeling that this is "public land" before I moved here people used that point without concern for how it looked (dumping their empty beer bottles etc.) My hope is to provide a reason for people to want to keep it nice.

It turns out that this spot has a history. Some archaeologists from the Maine Historic Preservation Commision have been digging here, and have found shells, flakes from the making of stone tools, and pieces of pottery. These tentatively identified as being from the late ceramic period, 1000 to 500 years ago. They have found other stuff from different periods in other locations about the property.

79. Your Own Home

I am not sure what more needs to be said about this pattern. It has always been a deep heart-felt issue for me.

105. South Facing Outdoors

house site
Building site, looking west
photo credit: Topher Belknap

There was, to me, an obvious site on the land for a house, a clearing shielded on the north by a hill. I put the house as far north in this clearing as I could (more would have hurt a oak tree I wanted to save). This left the majority of the clearing to the south. Not only does this provide the south facing outdoors as recommend by this pattern, but also it ensures maximum solar exposure for the roof panels (soon to be).

110. Main Entrance

Main Entrance
Main Entrance.
photo credit: Topher Belknap

It is often taken as a joke how few people will use a main entrance here in Maine. As if the front door was too high class for Maine. People will gladly climb over junk in the garage rather than go to the front door. The trick to getting a main entrance used around here is to give absolutely no choice to your guests.

112. Entrance Transition

When I first toured the land, the site I selected for a house site was a clearing at the end of a long wooded path. The feeling of enclosure was present until stepping into the clearing. This provided a compression-expansion feeling which was rather wonderful. Unfortunately, construction crews chopped many of the branches that contributed to this atmosphere. I now have to replace it with slow growing trees.

127. Intimacy Gradient

128. Indoor Sunlight

133. Staircase as a Stage

134. Zen View

house site
Sunset through the house
photo credit: Topher Belknap

As you walk down the path towards the house, there is a spot at which you can see through the house. The windows line up, so that, at night, the lights of the village across the river are seen. Twice a year the sun sets directly along this line.

139. Farmhouse Kitchen

I based the kitchen off of the feel of three great kitchens, two friends' houses, that I always felt comfortable in, and the third was Castle Tucker, just across the river.

141. A Room of One's Own

144. Bathing Room

There are two "half-baths" in the house, and one bathing room. Growing up in a family of six, with only one bathroom, made me determined not to have only one bathroom. There is, however, no reason that I can see, for having the toilet in the same room as the bath tub. So I split them up (each room with its own sink).

147. Communal Eating

Too many people I know have dining rooms that they rarely use. They have a breakfast nook, eat in kitchen or some such modern concept, and a formal dining room which sits empty and wasteful for all but three nights a year. My plan was to not only have every meal at the dining room table, but for it to be a center of activity with small projects and planning taking place there as well. The dining room is part of the flow of the house, one passes through it to get anywhere. It also contains the woodstove, making it a gathering spot.

159. Light on Two Sides of Every Room

With the exception of the bathrooms, all rooms have light from at least two directions. Since it is an open plan, some rooms get light from all four directions, and from multiple levels. On a select couple of days, the front door which faces east, get light on it from the western attic window.

161. Sunny Place

163. Outdoor Room

The outdoor room is planned to be on the south side, accessed from the french doors in the living room. At the moment it is a couple of adirondack chairs which lure you into sitting and watching that water. A good start.

170. Fruit Trees

apple tree
Alec, the Baldwin apple tree
photo credit: Topher Belknap

The land on which the house is built, was (a hundred years ago) the orchard and sheep pasture for a farm. There are still a dozen or so apple trees, some of which are still producing. I have tried to prune, fertilize, and extract them from the competition. I have also added a number of new fruit and nut trees, two cherry, two apricot, three peach, four apple, two elderberry, two black walnut, two pecan, and four american chestnut. More are planned as space is made available.

172. Garden Growing Wild

Within about 150 feet of the shoreline, it is my intention to plant only in accordance with what would naturally be there. Thus only native plants will be used, and the attempt made to produce a natural seeming environment. Unfortunately, I could not leave it in the state I found it, because there were two collapsing cabins which needed to be removed. The space they left needed to be seeded with something fast growing (grass) to satisfy local shore land zoning ordinances. I am now adding back trees and trying to regain the natural mix of plants in those areas.

175. Greenhouse

No greenhouse built yet, but one is planned. Perhaps a combination of ideas from Elliot Coleman and Solaroof

176. Garden Seat

177. Vegetable Garden

The garden gets bigger every year. The soil is getting better every year. The pride of stewardship is growing every year.

178. Compost

I have two types of compost piles. The first which takes the kitchen and composting toilet materials, has a two year cycle, filling for one year, decomposing the second. The second type (that I call compost holes) takes garden and landscaping materials, they are placed in spots where I desire that the ground level be higher, and are filled with slower decomposing items. The hope is that as they decompose they will just become a new level of dirt.

180. Window Places

181. The Fire

photo credit: Topher Belknap

The main source of controllable heat in the house is a woodstove. The woodstove has a glass window in the door, and sits in the very center of the house. It radiates heat easily into all portions of the house, and at the same time provides a place to stand on get warm after being outside. The window is important for more than just aestetic reasons, it is vital for adjusting the air flow to acheive a safe, efficient fire. The difference in terms of particulate quantity, between a badly run fire and a well run one, is 100:1.

182. Ceiling Height Variety

The dining room is open to the second floor (and the attic). The upstairs hall looks down into the space. I had some concerns that this opening would be too small (it is only 9 by 11 feet) and appear too chimney like. This fear was unwarranted. The opening combined with the railing into the upstairs hall gives a open feeling and relieves what might otherwise be a close environment downstairs.

193. Half Open Walls

My initial thought was to have some sort of half wall or shoji screen between the living room and the office. As yet this has not been needed. At the moment this function is being provided by the high backed love seat.

194. Interior Windows

cat shadow
Cat shadow through porthole
photo credit: Topher Belknap

The plan was for the bedrooms to have an operable stained glass window which opens into the central bay. This would allow light and heat to circulate without compromising privacy. This plan has been (perhaps permanently) postponed. Light and heat seem to circulate just fine as things stand, and the wall space is rapidly being allocated to hanging art.

Another plan was to put in a port hole (from one of my grandfather's boats) into the wall separating the office from the stair area. This would allow a small view from my office chair into the kitchen. This having been installed, it provides another benefit. It provides another opportunity for interesting light effects. At sunset sometimes, sun shines through it into interior spaces. I have put a small Bast statue inside it, which gives the impression of a cat looking at the moon, projected onto various places.

195. Staircase Volume

The placing of the staircase accounted for over 50% of the effort put into the layout design. Finding a place which extends from the basement to the attic, is accessible (at both ends) to all spaces, was a challenge. I started off thinking that the stairs would be as small as I could make them. After many tries what I ended up with, thanks to some great advice from a local architect, was stairs taking up an entire section (of the nine in the house). It contains the chimney, a small nook for sitting and reading, two bookcases, and is wide and luxurious. I begrudge none of the space it takes.

196. Corner Doors

This is a pattern that I did not consciously consider when designing my house. On reflecting however, I found that most of my doors do follow this pattern, and I see the wisdom in this pattern.

203. Child Caves

I did design in a child cave under the stairs in the basement. This space has been re-allocated to a site-built 200 gallon solar water tank. I will need to find a new cave.

207. Good Materials

The easiest way I have found for having good materials in a house, is not compromising on them. If a material that I really wanted was too expensive, I, for the most part didn't put in anything. Temporary expedients were used in a couple of places (light fixtures and counter tops), but as expected they have not been fixed yet. Other things are being slowly added as time and money allow.

211. Thickening of Outer Walls

Due to the larsen truss which makes up my exterior walls, this pattern was easy. The walls are over 12" (30 cm) thick.

212. Columns at the Corners

A pattern which fell out of my method of construction. Timberframe houses naturally have columns at the corners. Since I put the walls completely outside the frame, those columns are fully inside the living space. This also provides easy checking of the condition of the wood (I expect when the house is taken down (hopefully in 300 years), someone will reuse the timber frame for another structure.

217. Perimeter Beams

Another pattern natural to timber frame houses.

221. Natural Doors and Windows

This pattern describes determining exactly where and what size windows will be on site after the walls are partly assembled. This is not feasible in a building built in a more normal way. The windows need to be ordered weeks in advance of when they will be installed.

So why am I including this pattern in my list? Because at the root I agree with it. Placing windows makes a huge difference in how a house looks. I disagree that this can only be done on site, at least if you are only concerned with the house interior or exterior at a time. I constructed a computer model in which I could move the windows around to see how it looked. Moving the windows 2 inches was both noticeable (even in this small scale) and had an appreciable impact on the aesthetic qualities. Eventually I ended having a mis-communication with my framers, and the windows are off vertically, which make it not quite as I envisioned, but it still looks better than the shotgun window approach common on many modern houses.

222. Low Sill

The high post cape style leaves little room for second floor window on the long sides of the house. I wanted windows there (especially since the south is a long side), so I extended the posts to 5 feet (normally they are 3-4 feet in this style). This gave me room for some reasonable size windows and allowed me to walk all the way to the wall without banging my head (though taller people might have trouble). The windows being as large as would fit, needed to be put as close to the floor as possible. I decided to put the gable end window this low as well. This may have been a mistake, in conjunction with the mis-communication mentioned above, moving the windows up would have made the view slightly better, and the outside facade more rhythmic.

223. Deep Reveals

Having thick walls really requires this pattern. I splayed my window and door openings at 45° rather than the 50°-60° that is recommended. I did this to allow interior shutters to fit in that area. and 45° angles are a common element throughout the house.

225. Frames as Thickened Edges

This is another pattern which resonates particularly strongly with me. Every time I see a modern building (or worse an old building which has been renovated) with window or door frames made up solely of drywall corners, I wince. Ironically, this is one of things not yet finished on my house, as I waiting for the timbers to finish shrinking.

227. Column Connections

Another pattern natural to timber frame houses if traditionally made. Some modern timber frame companies leave out the diagonal braces between beams and columns. This is not something I would recommend.

229. Duct Space

Running utilities in a timber frame house is often problematic. The usually solution is to run wiring around the frame before putting on the walls. What I did was to run the wiring in a large baseboard which circumnavigates the exterior wall. This allows easy access for any desired changes.

230. Radiant Heat

Both means of heating my house use radiant heat. The woodstove is the main heat source, and the basement has radiant tubing in the slab for supplemental (and solar) heating.

234. Lapped Outside Walls

This pattern fit well with my desire to use cedar shingles. I used grade 2 locally harvested white cedar. Shingles have many advantages as a siding material. They can be individually replaced, They require no maintenance, and they weather to a beautiful grey which is a much loved aesthetic in this area.

236. Windows Which Open Wide

Casement windows are much easier to close tightly, and keep from leaking air than double hung windows. That said, the ability to stick your head out of them, as praised in the book, is limited in my area as screens are used, at most times, to keep out the mosquitos, and other flying irritants.

239. Small Panes

The idea of small panes goes against much modern thinking, not only the aesthetic which Christopher Alexander mentions in his book, but also from an energy standpoint, small panes aren't as good as large ones. Double and triple layer glass is much more efficient and reliable if made in big packages, and they let more light in. Despite this, I intend to add grills to simulate small panes on my large pane windows. I have made simulations and the small panes give a much more pleasant feeling. I am trying to devise a method of doing this that doesn't block any light. Frosted glass is one option.

240. Half Inch Trim

247. Paving With Cracks Between the Stones

The plan for the patio is to use large pieces of granite and to fill the gap with creeping thyme, moss, etc. Additionally, I am trying to encourage the yellow lichen which only grows near the ocean to take up residence on the steps and foundation stones. A project of decades, but so what?

252. Pools of Light

My house is, by modern standards, very dark. I use few lamps, no ceiling fixtures, and the minimum illumination (lumens) bulbs in what lamps I do have. I can move comfortably through my house with only one set of (two) lights on. Pools of light are an easy consequence of this.