New Book: What Makes a Home?
Architect Gil Schafer strives to find the elements that connect us to our dwellings
In his new book, A Place to Call Home, architect Gil Schafer wants to help us understand something emotional beyond architecture: the elements that connect it to a place and the people who live in it. As he explores homes from the Adirondacks in New York to Mill Valley in California, he shows how a home’s details — from how it’s placed on its site to the smallest details in a doorknob — work together to create a feeling of home.
Photos by Eric Piasecki
“My job was not to design buildings, it was to understand what a person’s or family’s dream of home is and then to make it come true,” Schafer writes. We’ll explore one of Schafer’s case studies, a lakeside house in the Adirondacks he designed and the details that make it a home.
In this region these kinds of homes are referred to as “camps.”
Both of the homeowners had long family histories of vacationing in the region, and they even had met there when they were children. Schafer dug deep to understand the region, the site, the local architecture and, most important, what it meant to his clients. We’ll look at some of the special things that made it home for them.
Siting: “I realize that a phrase like the power of place sounds like a gimmick, but in fact it is essential,” Schafer writes. He recommends careful study of a property before determining the best place to site the house. For instance, this Adirondack house faces the lake at an angle so the family can also take in views of another landmark, Whiteface Mountain.
Exterior architecture: The homeowners had a deep love of the Adirondacks embedded in their DNA. They were drawn to the local vernacular of brown cedar clapboard contrasting with crisp white trim and a green roof. They liked a certain level of formality but also wanted this to be a comfortable home.
Utility: Know what your family will need to get out of each space in the home, right down to the mudroom. “A basement or mudroom may not be sexy, but getting all the little details right will affect quality of life in subtle, unmistakable ways,” Schaefer writes. In this case it was a place to sit and kick off boots, to hang clothing and leashes. It was a spot that needed a stone floor to stand up to the dirt and moisture trekked in by those entering.
Making it home: Beadboard evokes nostalgia for another time, while a team photo, classic clock and vintage creel hanging on the wall on the left personalized the space before they had even hung up any of their coats, scarves or hats.
Interior architecture: Identify colors, materials and patterns that mean something to you. This family likes a certain level of formality but also wanted the home to feel relaxed. Thus there is a grand sense of scale articulated by high ceilings, gracious proportions and architectural details, yet it’s inviting and full of cozy nooks.
Making it home: The main dining area is casual and well used. A 10-foot-long farm table anchors a bay off the kitchen, with a comfortable banquette that mixes Windsor chairs (classic) in red (more casual), as well as ginghams (reminiscent of lakeside picnics) accentuated by floral throw pillows (more sophisticated).
Figure out where you may be able to squeeze in a cozy nook — under a staircase, in place of a closet or perhaps as a window seat like this one, in a daughter’s room.
Making it home: The mix of favorite patterns on the cushions plus the window treatment all add softness and warmth.
A painted floor in this bathroom also brings in the Adirondack camp feeling, while a furniture-like vanity, beadboard wainscoting and sweet wallpaper lend a sense of age to the home.
Making it home: The house has carefully chosen area rugs throughout. Some of them have the nostalgic look of a grandmother’s needlepoint rug, just updated a bit for today.
Placing spaces is important. These busy parents preferred to have a master suite that’s away from everything else. So it even has a staircase that leads right up to it from one of the back entrances. This long hallway separates the master suite from the children’s rooms.
Making it home: Sunny yellow walls, an Oriental rug and a traditional bench make the hallway more than just a pass-through space. It’s inviting and homey.
The master bath also has a painted floor and scads of beadboard, even on the vanity.
Making it home: Bring in familiar elements. Here details like the old-fashioned white curtains and the sweet vintage botanical print under the mirror provide personal connections to the past.
In the basement of the home, bright blue grasscloth walls paired with elements like nautical flags and oars has a more overt lake house theme. There are two of these sleeping nooks down here, recalling sleeping berths on a boat. They are handy for extra guests and a mid-afternoon nap.
Making it home: Recessed shelves in the side of the nook stay full of favorite vacation reads.