The Spaciousness of Density: Architect Tina Govan on Space

The Spaciousness of Density: Architect Tina Govan on Space

June, 19, 2011

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Article by local Architect Tina Govan

Over the years, working as an architect, many people have come to me with the idea that they must move to the outskirts of town in order to get the privacy and space they seek. As development pushes further out, however, people are beginning to realize the difficulty of “getting away” and the downsides of longer commutes and ever-increasing traffic.

Having designed houses in all types of settings, it’s become clear to me that some of the myths about living in denser neighborhoods are ripe for busting.  The typical downtown lot of 50’x125’ has enormous potential for spacious living, as well as privacy, and the key is seeing the house and lot as one.  
It has been my experience that there is an enormous amount of valuable outdoor space between and around houses that is  "left over" or wasted.  This space, if tapped, can dramatically increase the spaciousness of your home,  even if your lot is small and neighboring houses are closeby. If you use your land more efficiently and fully inhabit it, you may find that a "small" lot is much bigger than you thought.  
One effective strategy for uncovering the space that lies hidden around you is to enclose your lot along your property line, either partially or fully, with plantings, fencing or garden walls. Your “house” essentially becomes your entire lot, with some rooms inside and some outside.  With a perimeter boundary in place, you make a new “inside” that is outside.  On a smaller lot, outdoor rooms are even easier to create since the distance from house to fence is often a comfortable room size dimension. When it comes to indoor/outdoor living, it’s only the immediate area around your house that is useful, and so a small lot is all you really need.
When activities are allowed to spill outside, it greatly expands the living area and spacious feel  of your home. Your house can expand and contract with the seasons, introducing a whole new level of flexibility and choice to how you inhabit your home and your land.
Activities that you normally do inside can take place outside, if and when you choose: eating, cooking, reading, socializing, even bathing. 
The space between the house wall and outdoor fence or wall is full of potential and the dimension between the two doesn't have to be very large.  With a fence just five feet  from this desk window, you  have an intimate garden view of flowering vines and birds. You'd never guess that the neighbor's house is just ten feet away.
The power of screening cannot be overstated.   A fence only feet away can allow light and view to enter spaces on a side of the house that might otherwise be closed, without sacrificing privacy for either neighbor, despite the close quarters. 
A  screen held tight to the house also provides a backdrop against which up close views of animals and plants stand out in high relief. Whatever enters that space between house and fence is rendered more visible because of the fence. 
Even vegetable gardens can be grown in five to eight feet of space. Hanging tomato plants that grow upside down work well when space is tight.
It is counter-intuitive, but when you enclose a small yard with a wall or fence, it feels bigger because you can use more of it. It allows you to be right up next to your neighbor’s yard and still feel comfortable. You can be several feet away from your neighbor on the other side in a way that wouldn't be possible if a barrier weren't there.   Otherwise  conflicting elements can be brought next to each other, such as being able to park your car conveniently close to your front door without intruding into your yard or compromising the approach to your house.  
The kind of garden wall or fence you build can range in height and material, of course, from solid to slatted to a wire mesh that fills in with vines over time, to a simple hedge or row of trees.
Once you shift your thinking to seeing the house and its surrounding land as one continuous dwelling, with an easy flow from inside to outside, you can begin to explore the rich variety of outdoor spaces that your home can open up to.  At the Martin home, a house designed for a tight lot in Mordecai, you climb up through the house as you would the site, moving from outside to inside to outside again, finally arriving at a roofdeck that overlooks both the private backyard and public street beyond.
Set among the trees and rooftops of  this older neighborhood, it is a surprise you discover, a wonderfully liberating space that feels even more expansive because of the dense neighborhood that surrounds it. Rooftops are amazing places and in the context of density, they are even more dramatic.  
In a dense context, distant views, nature, or wildlife are often experienced more powerfully than in more rural environments.  In the midst of density, you have the mutually enhancing contrasts of the up close and the far away, the intimate and the expansive, the small scale of  tightly knit houses in relation to the larger scale of the landscape and  street.  It’s this connection to both the large and small scales that can make dense environments so rich.  
The “borrowed view,” something the Japanese often use, is another way to introduce the larger scale, and a sense of expansive space, into a densely built neighborhood. Just because your lot may not be big, it doesn't mean your views can't be. 
By carefully editing a framed view, you can focus attention on a distant element and bring it close, “borrow” it, while selectively blocking out what you don't want to see, such the street below or a neighbor's car. It can be a distant mountain, a tree in a neighbor’s yard, a church steeple across town, or even the moon or stars. Suddenly the larger dimension is brought into your home and you get a sense of release and connection. Even though your house may not be surrounded by vast open spaces, by bringing axes of distant views into your home, in addition to thoughtfully framing close-up views,  you can feel just as powerful a connection with the larger environment.
Lastly, a great benefit of density and extending your dwelling to encompass the outdoors, is that a rich neighborhood fabric emerges, one that connects the homeowner not only with the outside, but with the surrounding community. Walking down the street, you see more than a string of separate houses, but a series of entry paths, framed views into mysterious gardens beyond, tapestries of walls and fences of varying materials and patterns, spaces between houses where neighbors have negotiated a shared path, driveway, or place to sit.
A gathering spot squeezed between two houses, a kind of courtyard enclosed by the walls of  houses on either side. 
These are the kinds of places we love to visit and walk through. They are humane and reflect the variety of the people who live there, or who have lived there in the past, and the individual contributions they've made to the street. Because the houses are not spread out, the street has a continuity and the spaces between houses have more potential since they are comfortably scaled, generally room-sized, and can be adapted to many uses. 
When people extend dwelling to their property line, each house becomes more of a "place" rather than an "object," enriched with a territorial layering that marks the transition from private home and garden to public street. The homeowners don't have to choose between being completely inside or completely outside. They can choose to be anywhere they'd like along a more finely tuned spectrum of places that range from enclosed and  private to more exposed and public.
By exploiting these zones between inside and outside, between public and private, any house, but particularly small houses on tight lots, don't  feel small or tight, but become expansive with a wide range of places to be:  windowseat, balcony, covered porch, open patio, trellised terrace, roofdeck, breezeway, entry bench, fenced yard, gazebo, and all the other possible spaces that can be crafted in these in-between zones. 
Front porches, for example, allow you to dwell in that place between public and private. You are in your own space, but also part of the street, similar to the way dogs  often prefer to sit in doorways. It gives you a choice as to which world you want to participate in.  You can say hello to a passing neighbor, or bury your nose in a book. 
These kinds of in-between spaces are vital because they connect us to the world around us, not only to nature, but just as importantly, to our community. They  make us comfortable spending time in our “doorways." The result is that we enliven the street as well as the street enlivening us.
For many it is a revelation to realize that smaller houses and dense neighborhoods can be very private, yet spacious and open and full of choice. It’s amazing what is possible on a tight lot.  My message is: Don’t be afraid to explore and exploit the spaciousness of density and smaller homes! The benefits to you, your neighborhood, and the planet might be more than you imagine.
Check out more of Tina Govan's work over at her website.

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Tina Govan

  • Jenna
    06/20 02:27 PM

    We’ve applied a lot of these concepts in our townhouse—and it even works there, where there’s no space between homes. Our patio/deck/balcony have become another living room! Skylights have given us views of beautiful sky.

  • Arthurb3
    06/20 03:29 PM

    Thanks for the great article.

  • John
    06/20 11:22 PM

    Certainly an interesting read but nothing that people didn’t know about 100’s of years ago when limits to transportation didn’t allow us to spread ourselves more thinly across an ever increasing sprawl.
    I was also hoping to read about how multifamily urban housing can encourage a city to become more dense and less reliant on cars while allowing more land to be allocated to public space accessed by the many and by foot.
    This is still all about the single family house but it is a move in the right direction….I supppose I should be glad about that?  However, as my life moves on decade by decade, I’d like to see DT Raleigh make some more serious moves toward a more urban exitence before I get too old to enjoy it. :-)

  • Jortles Scrozzelle
    06/27 12:45 PM

    Great ideas for improving existing housing in the downtown Raleigh area? How is Raleigh’s “exitence” going to get urban enough to make John happy without new multifamily housing and why didn’t you write about that?  You blew it Tina.

  • Tina Govan
    07/09 02:05 PM

    Hi Jorties,

    Obviously, we need multi-family housing and that would make a great topic to write about next. We need all forms and degrees of density, of course.  I originally wrote this piece as an appeal to homeowners who so often come to me thinking that the suburbs are the only place for a family to live comfortably, with enough privacy and space. This is by no means an attempt to talk about all the forms of density that Raleigh should or could pursue. Attached, multifamily housing is, of course, vital and it is what we need to move towards, but just thinking beyond the suburbs, even considering downtown living as a possibility, is a big leap for a lot of people. So, Jorties, there’s room for all kinds of density.

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