Monday, October 28, 2013

Architect term of the Day: Context

Street View of New House
Enough talk and pictures of dirt and re-bar. Today I thought we could discuss some planning and design ideas.

Context is the architect's word for looking at the area surrounding the building site and then designing a new building that fits in with its neighborhood. This can mean matching regional styles or materials. It  can mean aligning horizontal banding of an old university brick building or highrise with lines of a new design. It can mean creating the new to be similar in scale and massing to what is around it. Admittedly, "fitting in" can mean different things to different people. Some may argue that referencing existing context stifles creativity or focuses one to build in an out-moded style, but I do not believe that is the case.

neighboring house
Here in Tivoli, the building code incorporated a "Pattern Book" to guide designers so that new construction would blend with the context of our village. Two stories. Gable (or narrow end) facing the street. Full front porch set back a similar distance from street/sidewalk as the adjacent buildings. Clapboard siding. Detached garage. Basically a traditional village house. You can view the document here: Zoning/TivoliPatternBook.pdf

As a resident of this small village, I appreciate the Pattern Book. It helps protect us from "ugly" development in a world where all houses are not designed by architects or sited by planners. The house I designed will fit in well on the street and in the village such that next year a passer-by might not know which house is new. Similarly when I design an addition to a house, it's usually one of my goals that once complete, a visitor won't be able to tell where the new part is because it blends so well with the existing house. Granted, blending in is not everyone's style - but it was right for this site, project, and client.

On another site nearby, but just outside the village, a radically different house is under construction. It is secluded at the end of a long, winding driveway where context and pattern books do not apply. This creative family is building a home out of stacked shipping containers. I had a chance to see it recently after the containers were placed and some openings were cut for windows and doors.

Different architects give varying amount of importance to context. Different sites demand varying amounts of contextual respect. I agree with the team who created the Pattern Book, that here in our one square mile village, looking around at context is important. It helps our village have a cohesiveness of place that is valuable and visible.
shipping container house under construction

1 comment:

  1. Christie,
    I had some time to go through your comments this afternoon and they are wonderful. Would you send a link to Michele Grieg - our Village Planner -- and to Robert Zises (I will send you their e-mails). Robert's wife - Anita Micossi -- who we lost to cancer a few years ago -- was the driving force behind the pattern book.