Designers do best when they understand their clients fully, empathize with their intentions, and transcend what they expected was possible. This means not just distinguishing between what they say they want and what they actually need, but why they want and need it. If we listen carefully we often discover a complex landscape of motivations and expectations, defined in equal parts by discrete life experiences and aspirational values; conditions that are both limiting and often, at odds. Here is how we see this manifested.

House on backThe intention to have a better home, new or remodeled, emerges from two essential experiences: a sense that an existing home could look and work better and/or an aspiration to have a better home with more space, features, and potentially, in a better location as resources allow.

Of these two, the first is almost inevitably true. Most homes were built by merchant builders to strike a balance between curb appeal (sales potential) and profitability (control costs by spending here : on feature people will see and respond to – ┬ábut skimping there: on those they won’t immediately notice or discover). Designed and constructed according to these compromises, they are inevitably incomplete. In addition, existing homes are expressions of what was desirable (or at least marketable) at the time they were built.

At one time formal dining and living rooms, formal front entries, and secluded “workshop” kitchens were standard and expected. I have spent my career undoing this pattern in favor of how we live now: with the kitchen as the social hub and the primary entry related to where we park. Few people actually need a formal entry, living or dining room. And because these are plan book designs oblivious to their sites, good relationships with the outdoors are often absent. In our work we recognize and respond to the need for these changes.

The more confounding condition is found around aspirational motivations. Of these there are two essential paths. The familiar path is defined by resources, wants, and needs. It begins with a first simple apartment or small house (what most can initially afford), expands to accommodate a growing family empowered by increasing income, and when conditions favor it, allows for added space and aesthetic improvements and if possible, a move to a better neighborhood with a more accommodating yard, privacy, and other virtues. How much and how well any of these are available depends on personal circumstance and good fortune. We have served folks on every step of this path.

Queen of Versailles 1At some point along this way there is a branch in the road that leads, at its most obscene scale, to a person who begins contemplating building the largest home in the country. This journey is revealed in the recent documentary “The Queen of Versailles,” a depressing meditation on the consequences of excess, in this case manifested in a failed attempt to construct an out of control goliath as a family home. This is of course an extreme case, but within the telling of that tale comes this answer to the question, “Why are you building such an enormous house?”

“Because I can!”

Why build such an enormous house?  "Because I can!"

Why build such an enormous house? “Because I can!”

This is where I am stumped. I have built projects that were decidedly bigger and expressly grander than they needed to be. At the time this suited both of us and our aspirations; for Wolfworks to have the opportunity to craft exceptional spaces and establish a reputation for that capacity and for our clients to “have it all” (or at least all they could want and afford). In retrospect it seems like we could have, and perhaps should have, aspired to do more with less. Here’s the inverse of that tale.

I got a call a couple months back from a family that had built one of these goliath homes. Times were good, and before they knew it the large 4,000SF home they had planned had mushroomed to nearly 6000SF. They moved in and rather quickly discovered that the house was actually (surprise!) too big. It was hard to furnish, expensive to condition, and it turned out that their kids liked sharing a room better than having one of their own. Having sold that house they were calling to talk about a new energy efficient house with enough, but not more than enough space for their family. Something around 2500SF.

What is enough?