It is quite common that one of the first projects a young graduate architect will be privately commissioned for will be a small house or cottage. . . for her parents. Many architects will also at some point work (or attempt to work) on renovating their own home as a chance to experiment, build up their portfolio, and likely because they can’t afford to hire another architect or to build a custom home. I’m currently working on a project somewhere in between.
Last time I visited, my parents asked me to draw up some plans for a series of renovations to the main floor of their home, that is, my childhood home. Nothing extravagant. Just some minor rearrangements to the main floor floorplan.
The house celebrated its centenary this year. Built in 1912, it’s a modest yellow brick, originally two bedroom, worker house in South Western Ontario. Whereas most kindergarteners’ drawings of their home aren’t terribly accurate representations, mine were. Not because I was some kind of architecture prodigy or anything. I just actually did live in the iconic square base and triangle roof house.
Before I left, I went around and took measurements of the main floor. I returned to Ottawa. Sat down at my computer. Drew up the floorplan. Printed it out at 1:100. And I stared at it in disbelief. I finally understood something that baffled me since my first interaction with a client.
This drawing is NOT my house.
I mean, the architect in me can recognize the house, of course. But my childhood memories and my experience of the home don’t seem to fit within those lines on the page. It feels uncanny. It feels off; the relationship of the rooms, the relative sizes of the rooms. That can’t possibly be all there is to the house where I spent the first eighteen years of my life – the house where I grew up.
One of my closely held memories of my first clients was sitting down with them to go over the as-built drawings of their home. The wife would point to the drawing and ask “What’s this?“. “A window,” I’d answer. “There’s no window there.” I’d pull out a picture of the room and show her there clearly was. It was just one of many comments that baffled me. How was she having such a hard time orienting herself to her own home in a drawing?
It’s one thing as a student of architecture to realize not everyone can imagine an unbuilt or unseen space based on architectural plans. That does take training. But surely, if there is one space people should be able to understand based on a drawing, it is their own home. Right?
Of course I’m exaggerating my own disorientation to seeing the plans. But the fact that I felt it, even if just in a tiny way and just for a moment, gave me an appreciation for what it must be like for clients.