Here’s a subject that’s rarely given enough thought in custom home design…the way you enter and leave your house. We’re just talking about a door, right? A hole in the wall, a way in and a way out; what more is there to consider?
It’s easy to overlook the design of the entrance to our houses. We spend our time working on the design of the exterior and creating the spaces inside the house. But the front door and the spaces connected to it occupy an important middle ground between indoors and out and set the stage for the success of the entire custom home design. The entry begins to establish your home’s personality and suggests how the rest of the house should be. The entry is a symbolic passage from the public realm of the street to the private realm of the family and tells the world something about the people within.
If Walls Could Speak
It’s a cliché to say that the front of a house “makes a statement”, but clichés usually have some basis in truth. The entry can be a barrier or an invitation, obvious or concealed, pompous or humble; it can welcome you in or it can keep you at arm’s length. The front door and the area around it can be a message board for the neighborhood – hung with wreaths and ivy during the holidays, festooned with red, white, and blue on the Fourth of July, and decorated with pumpkins and corn shocks at Halloween.
Each element that makes up the home’s entry has something to say. The classic American front porch is a good example; it’s the outdoor social center, a place to watch the activity of the street, a place to meet and greet neighbors and friends. A front porch is an outdoor room, neither completely public nor private and easing the transition into and out of the house. A house with a big, broad front porch tells the world that the family inside values the social fabric of the street, welcoming neighbors and friends and inviting them to stop and visit.
The Entry Sequence
But the front porch is just one part of a sequence of spaces and elements creating a transition from the public realm (the street) to the private realm (the house). That sequence includes walks, landscaping, steps, porches, overhangs, lights, doors, and interior entry spaces. A successful entry sequence considers the placement and design of all of these elements and their relationship to each other.
The entry to a home begins long before you’ve stepped onto the property. It starts in the street with the initial visual cues — where the entrance to the property is, and where the entrance to the house is.
At first glance from the street, the entry to the house should be seen or at least hinted at to provide a clear destination for our guests. Our old friend the front porch is a great way to indicate clearly where the entrance is to be found. A porch or overhang at the entry also keeps your guests out of the weather while they’re waiting for you to answer the door.
A path from the street or driveway to the front door should be direct – people look ahead subconsciously as they approach a building, searching for the shortest path to the entrance. The beginning of the path should be well lit so that it can be found in the dark, and should be wide enough for two people to walk comfortably abreast. This is also a great place for colorful landscaping. In temperate and cold climates, leave areas open where shoveled snow can be piled alongside the walk without burying the planting beds.
A little mystery isn’t a bad idea here either – vary the direction of the path a bit so the scenery changes and the front door moves in and out of view.
It’s A House, Not A Greek Temple
Historically, the design of a home’s entry gave the public an indication of the wealth and status of its owners. The entrances to grand homes are often flanked by huge classical columns, their doors framed by elaborately carved surrounds. But when more modest homes take up these motifs, they often feel out of place and forced. An entry can be too easily seen from the street, announcing itself too boldly (as if it were an entrance to an office building), and draining all of the warmth from the entry sequence.
Better to design the entry on a human scale, using familiar elements that don’t overwhelm the visitor. Benches, small windows, potted plants, brick paths and porch railings all contribute to the comfort we want our guests to feel as they are welcomed into our homes.
The human scale should continue on the other side of the door. Although some larger homes are appropriately fitted with double curved stairs and four hundred square foot entry halls, these features overwhelm a typical family home. Entry halls and foyers should welcome guests, allow them to get oriented to the house, provide a place to hang their coats, and direct them efficiently to the “public” rooms of the house. There’s a place for splendor and majesty of course, but that’s best left to the grand homes.
Hey, I didn’t invent this stuff…
Other cultures also place a high value on the design of a home’s entry. The Ancient Chinese art of Feng Shui dictates exactly where a home’s front door should be to attract good Chi (energy flow) and block harmful Chi. It’s a complex relationship between compass position, proximity to other structures, roads and paths, access to sunlight, and views to the outside. According to Feng Shui, a well-placed and well-designed front door can enhance luck, promote business success, and increase the health of the occupants. Although deeply rooted in ancient culture, much of Feng Shui is simply good design practice that we can apply to the design of the ways that we enter and exit our own homes.
Welcome Home To… Your Laundry Room?
Although the introduction of the automobile has had a profound impact on the way we enter our houses, it was the popularization of the attached garage in the mid 20th century that eventually relegated the traditional front door and porch to ceremonial status. Ironically, we rarely use the impressive entries we build in our homes. We’re content to enter our own house through the garage – often through a laundry room or mudroom. Is that what we’ve worked so hard for? Providing grand entry experiences for our few visitors or the annual holiday gatherings while we trudge daily through the dirty laundry? The owners of the house should be welcomed into their sanctuary through a space designed to greet them, to acknowledge them, and to recognize them as the reason it exists.
On a recent pre-design tour through a remodeling client’s home, the client and I entered through the garage and laundry room, moving aside bicycles, toys, and baskets of dirty clothes to get into the kitchen. She hadn’t thought about it, but I suggested we consider reworking the way she enters her house as a part of the remodeling. She agreed, and the result is a small but well appointed “owner’s entry hall” directly off of the garage and connecting to the kitchen and breakfast room. The laundry and mudrooms are adjacent to but closed off from this entry. She’s already told me how much she enjoys the new space and how it brightens her spirits at the end of the day.
But what about the front door itself? The front door is at once a bridge and a barrier. Should it be big, small, opaque, transparent, rectangular or arched? I prefer a big door wide enough to make the furniture movers happy – at least 42 inches wide. Because the front door will be used every day, durability and resistance to weather damage are important. A bit of glass in the door allows permits residents to see someone outside without allowing the stranger a view of the interior. A lot of glass in the door is less private, but brings in more light from the outside.
Although a wood door is susceptible to damage from the elements, it always looks better than metal or fiberglass imitations. And if properly protected with an overhanging roof, a quality wood door should last the life of the house.
An Open And Shut Case
The front door is one part of many elements that make up an entry design. A successful entry sequence starts in the public realm of the street and moves through a sequence of spaces on its way to the private realm of the house. The design of the entry communicates with the neighborhood and is scaled appropriately to the rest of the house.
That “hole-in-the-wall” is much more than just a way in and a way out.