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Form, Function and Friendliness
Building "User-Friendly" Homes

by Myron E. Ferguson

Most of us have heard of Louis Sullivan's "Form follows function" where he says that in building design that how it looks comes after it's made to be functional. Sounds reasonable, doesn't it? He promulgated this philosophy in the latter part of the 1800's. But he wasn't the first. Sir Francis Bacon, writing around 1600 said, "Houses are built to live in, not look on." Then later Frank Lloyd Wright commented, "Form and function should be one, joined in spiritual union." All sounds very erudite and a good guide for anyone involved in designing or building a home, doesn't it? It is and it's not.

Even if we can define what "form" means (and it isn't all that clear), defining "function" is a whole different thing. My thesaurus says function is "use, task, purpose." Let's relate that to a light switch in a house, for example. We'll all agree that the function is to turn the light on or off. But how do you differentiate between a light switch that's where it's easily reached and one that's, say, behind a door so that you have to close the door to reach the switch? We need something that goes beyond "function" because there are clearly different levels of functionality. Or at least levels of desirability.

In my book "
Better Houses, Better Living" I chose to use "user-friendly" to describe the switch located where it is most useful. But there are many other ways a home can be unfriendly while still being functional. Take a dishwasher. It should be next to the sink so you don't drip water on the floor when loading it. And it shouldn't be in a corner where you can't put dishes away in either the upper or lower cupboards behind it until you've unloaded them onto the counter and then closed the door. It is certainly functional in the sense that it washes the dishes. But it is not friendly. The only reason you would have to put up with this is that someone wasn't thinking about the user when the kitchen was designed. (Dishwasher problems happen in over 1/4 of the almost 2000 houses I've looked at in my research.) The photo shows an example where the dishwasher is separated from the sink and is in a corner.

User-friendliness has not been a recognized side of home design. Some designers may think of it but they don't get anything for their efforts so they don't bother. Most don't think of it. "How come?" you may ask. It's quite simple, we've gotten so
used to having things like these throughout a house that we don't go looking for them---but they're still there which we find out when we move in and have to live with them. Design schools will teach functionality, like a light should go over a table, but where to put the light is left to the builder or his electrical subcontractor. If you're lucky the builder may tell the sub where to put the light, but more likely the builder doesn't know, doesn't say anything and the sub puts it in the center of the room. Which may be OK for a kitchen nook, but usually is not OK for a dining room. (In the dining room, if there's a china cabinet or other furniture, the table is centered on what's left of the room, which means that the center of the room is about one foot offset from the center of the table.) How many dining room fixtures have you seen where chandelier has been put over the table and connected with a swagged piece of chain to where the mounting box was located by the electrician?

So we buy houses for things like cost, number of rooms, how it looks from the curb, location and taxes. Builders know this and that's what goes into their design decisions. And, until people include user friendliness in their criteria, that's what's going to continue to be built. The only protection you have against this is YOU. Before you buy, find out about the literally hundreds of ways that minor and major irritations can be avoided. You'll have a whole different approach to home buying and building and you'll have a better home because of it.

Better Houses, Better Living by Myron Ferguson

A must-have if you are planning to build a home. How to avoid the most common (and costly) construction mistakes. An approach that is both detailed and easy to understand. Strongly recommended. Available here.

Copyright © 1999, Myron E. Ferguson. All rights reserved.

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